Tuesday, July 16, 2013

¿Por Que No? (Portland, Oregon)

Their website has a "mythology" page, on which the owner, Bryan Steelman, praises the "honest smiles of the people" of Mexico. These pale, taco-induced smiles around me, then, must be the other sort. I must misunderstand the kitchen staff on their break joking about Portlandia in Spanish--how could their latin tongues know irony?

This may seem beside the point, but we are concerned with matters of the tongue. If, like the owner, we are inclined to trust honesty, how can we trust the artfully distressed brick walls, where a profusion of Guadalupes watch over us?

Personally, I think honest food is a nonthing, a dopey Jamie Oliverism. Indeed, this is precisely why I distrust this food, which sports dual pretensions of being authentically Mexican and locally sourced. Each meat is preceded with--a what? Place? Company? Brand? Farm? It hardly matters, so long as we know it came from Somewhere.

It seems to be a winning duo of pretense: patrons are always spilling out in lively lines, energized by the imminence of tacos. (Or, let's be honest: of decor.)

I took a photo!
The Tacos: 3/5 Relieved of its proper nouns, the meat shines. That's the wrong verb for this meat; it is, as they say, solid. Both beef and chicken were tender yet charred, juicy yet toothsome. There is of course a lot more than beef and chicken tacos on the menu, including vegetables, fish, squid, and shrimp. Noteably, no tripe, tongue, or heart. I can't blame them--I can't stomach to try such stuff, either.

The meat has been pampered, but the tortilla has been abused. The menu says they're "fresh housemade corn tortillas!" and perhaps this is true: they were fresh a few days ago. I only complain because a $3 taco (they're small) has a certain onus. It's not bad, but it's not ideal. It falls apart a bit, it lacks that suppleness. Still, I devoured it.

Acoutrement: 3/5 Your hand is forced somewhat by the salsas that are already on the taco. They have a braggable selection in plastic squeeze bottles, but my tacos came with an enervated salsa casera and some kind of orange goo. The menu tells me this is "crema." It is creamy. Oh, maybe I'm a bit stubborn when it comes to tacos--surely cream can't hurt. After all, Guy Fieri's tacos come with crema. Er.

Value: 2/5 $3 isn't absurd for a gourmet taco, but what's so special about them? Is it that Bryan Steelman went on a trip to Mexico ten years ago, and culinary history changed forever?

Other: 4/5 I have pilled this plate with vitriol already, but there's no denying this place is a phenomenon, and coming here is to experience it. It's in its prime. Somehow, it snowballed just right; everyone goes to the place everyone goes.

Overall: 3/5 Come for the above, stay for some pretty good tacos. Also, the aguas frescas are good, or at least interesting. The jamaica is good shorthand for the particular tastes appealed to here: very strongly brewed, with not much sugar.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Zack's Shack (Portland, Oregon)

 If not harrassed, he seemed tired, this waiter, host, guy behind the counter, whatever: this poor man was this place's everything, at that hour. That awkward hour between lunch and dinner, when eateries empty and coffee shops swell with the denial of the seista rolling in like fog. Actually, isn't that precisely hot dog hour? Strange.

As the only customer, how could I make the loud, unmistakeable gesture of pulling out a camera?

The dog: 4/5 This blog post is my sole claim to hot dog gourmandaise, but an excess of cultivation is alien to the taste of a hot dog. They are a fine thing, and are ruined by deliberation. It was delicious. Juicy, but not that pack of slimy weiners dripping from the fridge. Because let's admit it, a good hot dog is contained obscenity. The way we like our objects. You see? Ruined.

Acoutrement: 2/5 I misunderstood the menu, reading "coleslaw" and imagining sauerkraut. The fault is mine, of course, but is there a reason I was barred from choosing condiments at my leisure, free from the urgent surveilance of the waiter, however well-meaning? Why must I choose from these cute names under which condiments strain in nearly unreadable type? This may seem like a lot to ask, but I have one more question: Who puts coleslaw on a hot dog?

It is with some relief I note that this dog is not slathered in incongrouously soothing slaw. However, one of them is naked.

Other: 3/5 Finding this faintly sad void where later barflies would gather, I evacuated to the sidewalk benches, which was a pleasant sit, despite adjacency to the wider, busier part of Hawthorne. The gaze drifts to tacos, just down the street, and indeed, ¿por que no?

Overall: 4/5 When I ventured back inside to bus my empty basket, dear reader, a discovery! In my former haste, when I had feared the waiter's wary eye, I had missed the patio out the back door, where ping-pongers gaily swing their paddles in the sunshine--which in this blunt climate, even in the height of summer, withers. And as I departed, lo, I spied on the menu those words--nasty in form but welcome in significance--that I had suspected: "build your own." It's not exactly right, but it will do.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Big Nick's (Upper West Side)

This place has all the trappings of a New York institution. The seating is cramped, the layout labyrinthine, and the menu overwhelming in its size and variety. Which is ironic since the only thing people want to eat there is pizza, hot dogs, and burgers. And the hot dogs are worth it. They aren't the sort of trendy deep fried meat stick covered with eclectic toppings or an Asian-American fusion of heart clogging cuisine; they're just plain ol' New York street meat served up in large portions for a decent price, a good variety of toppings, and the sort of twist that makes you want to go back at least once or twice more to figure out which variation you like the best. Over the last few months, I've had the opportunity to try the hot dog in a blanket, daily double, and the Kobe beef dog.

The Kobe Beef Stick. Who could ask for anything more?
The dog: 4/5 would I take visiting friends to this place straight away? Probably not, it lacks flash and panache, the glamour needed for a 5/5. But as a regular local spot, this is where to go. If I lived closer, I'd be eating porch-style grilled  Kobe beef dogs all the time. Need a place for a date? Try splitting the daily double, two good sized and juicy dogs that come with the requisite coleslaw and fries. And if it all feels like its been done before, go for the hot dog in a blanket, wonderfully wrapped in fresh pizza dough making a sort of hot dog calzone that's worth the extra wait.

The basics, but everything you need for deliciousness
Acoutrement: 3/5 its a diner, so they've got all the basics you need and can accommodate your heathen request for ranch dressing on your hot dog. If you're looking for a rosemary bacon aioli, this ain't the place for you.

Value: 3/5 what you pay and what you get are totally reasonable. It's certainly a meal and comes at no more than $10, which seems fair. If you're not ravenous, it's often large enough to split a single plate and a side. I've never much cared if my hot dog is 'Kobe' or not, and the inflation in price usually makes it not worthwhile, but this one is huge and still stays under $10. It's my recommended go-to if you're looking for a honking piece of tubular happiness.

Pizza Dough wrapped hotdog. Juicy and plump and good.
Other: 3/5 there's certainly plenty of 'other' at big nicks. Can't claim to have even made a dent in sampling the rest of the menu, though I understand their burgers are the big offering. They seem delicious enough.

Overall: 4/5 as I said, a solid local spot. If you want to get off the beaten tourist path or want to explore a new neighborhood joint, try out Big Nick's. In a polished upper west side world, it's nice to have this unchanged dive/diner that's endured through the years.