Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Torchy's Light Dimmed By Expansion. But Only by a Bit.

I've debated posting a Torchy's review for the last few months. In that time, it's gone from hipster trailer park South First fare to explosively fast suburban-strip-mall expansion. Torchy's still slings dynamite tacos, but ultra-hip plays a little flat when it's next to a Panda Express in a brand new limestone strip mall at the corner of Mopac and William Canon, however many tattoos the cashier has.

The concept of Torchy's is pretty straightforward - a whole stack of pre-designed somewhat adventurous tacos using fresh stuff and really good tortillas. Tack on chips, salsa, queso, and guacamole (all excellent), and that's about it. My personal favorite is the Democrat - shredded barbacoa beef, avocado, lime, cilantro and queso fresco. The barbacoa is oozing with a rich, slightly sharp flavor (these are best when they go light on the meat). The sharp edges are highlighted by the lime, mellowed by the avocado and cheese and freshened up by the cilantro. Throw in a couple of super-soft fresh corn tortillas and you're in business.

The other real standout for me is the salsa. The chips are nothing special, but I could eat this salsa with a spoon. Mild but not without kick, it's got a bunch of different peppers playing around in there, and a good bit of lime. Completely awesome.

Breakfast tacos are good, but you can only go so far in a town that also sports Maria's Taco Xpress. By the Maria's standard, these don't quite meet the bar - not quite as fresh, potatoes not quite as well integrated. The Ranch Hand mixes the egg and the barbacoa, and isn't half-bad.

It remains to be seen how this place will do in its newfound expansion. My impression so far is that the quality at the new locations doesn't quite match up to the original trailer, and that they might be trying just a little to hard to look like downtown and not hard enough to taste like it. Still, this is a great place, and I'm selfishly happy that they've staked out ground in my neck of the woods, even at the cost of a little brand dilution.

Torchy's Tacos on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 22, 2010

Vegas: The Shorter the Skirt, The Worse The Food

Spent a week in Vegas earlier this month. In classic stick-in-the-mud form, I spent that time shuttling between a Root Cause Analysis course in the Flamingo conference center and my hotel room in the Westin, catching up on work and attending 5AM conference calls.

I did manage to do a little wide eyed tourist browsing (particularly impressed with the attention to detail at Paris), and a little fancy-dancy eating. Between Ceasar's, Paris, and the Bellagio, here's the major rule I discovered:

The showier the waitress, the more blase the food.

Shortest skirt was at Yellow Tail, the sushi place at the Bellagio. Even before the outrageous price per piece ($60 for 12-piece chef's selection), this was some of the sloppiest, most tasteless sushi I've eaten.

Next up, Le Burger Brasserie, featuring Le Waffle Fries. This was a not-bad tourist burger positively shellacked with a French sheen. $19 gets you a burger. For a side of the afore mentioned extra-french french fries, another $4.

On the third night, I made it over to Ceasar's, and found Mesa Grill. My waitress was a perfectly normal person, wearing actual pants. And it was - by far - the best meal I had on the trip. It's a beautiful space (as they all are), but unlike the other two, the minute you walk in, it's clear that it's run as a restaurant. Service was impeccable and crisp. I had a glass of California Syrah that was to die for (custom label for Mesa).

The best thing I ate here, and the best thing I ate on the trip, was a Gala Apple Salad. Primarily this is perfectly crisp chilled cubes of apple, with a few leaves of baby spinach, candied pecans and blue cheese in a chili-orange vinaigrette. Strange combination, beautifully executed. I could have had three of these, skipped the entree, and been a very happy guy.

Slightly less impressive, but still tasty was the Pork Tenderloin. Portioned for two, maybe three large people, this was delicately cooked tenderloin in a mild mole sauce. On the side, which was the best thing on the plate, was a sweet potato tamale. The mole was a bit on the bland side, though beautifully presented, but the tamale was heavenly.

All that being said, Vegas was truly a ball. Just walking down the strip is an education of what the human race can build given the raw ambition, unconstrained by anything. Eating mediocre there is still a good time. But through all the overscaled hugeness of the place, the food there is a subtle reminder that good food is made one plate at a time, by people who know what they're doing, regardless of the glitz around them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mysteriously Tasty Treats in ATL

There are few culinary wastelands that can match the domain beyond the security checkpoint in sheer food hopelessness. Maybe it's the captive audience, but airports seem completely set on finding the lowest common denominator in the American diet and seeing if they can inch that bar just a little bit lower.

There are a few bright spots: Austin's commitment to local food in the airport yields decent and improving results; Pappadeux in the E terminal at IAH is consistently good; Columbus, OH and Portland, OR both have fully functioning espresso places (Joe's and EspressoPeople, respectively). And, this week, I've got a new one: Cafe Intermezzo at ATL.

Granted, these places don't tend to age all that well, and Intermezzo is a new-comer, but from what I've seen so far, this place has real promise.

Intermezzo is located in the bookstore at the center of Terminal B, the flagship terminal in Atlanta's behemoth Hartsfield International airport. It's on the less traveled side, across the hallway from the major food court.

You walk in greeted by a massive pastry case. And these are legit pastries, super lush, super rich. The espresso machine is a force to be reckoned with, though as with most of the spit-shined bronze monster machines, this one's mostly show. The tables are scattered throughout - several in front in sort of a sidewalk cafe format, and several back in the bookstore, with a view of the planes outside.

I've eaten there a couple of times. This last time, I ordered a pot of coffee and a spinach artichoke crepe. I've been on kind of a crepe kick lately, and while this wasn't the best I've had it was really simple, and really tasty. Essentially, this was a two-ingredient deal: baby spinach leaves and artichoke hearts. No bechamel. No cream. No goop at all. The spinach was just wilted - perfectly done, I expect simply from the heat of the crepe. The artichokes (full disclosure - I am an artichoke fiend) could have been a bit higher quality and a bit better trimmed, but they were tender and a nice compliment to the spinach. The coffee was lovely as well, nice full body, light roast, delivered in a little pot with a ceramic mug. It's a small thing, but ceramic mugs in an airport deserve some kudos.

This place is not the speediest of options, but thankfully in this case at least, ATL is not the speediest of airports. I highly recommend it next time you've got a flight delayed out until the far edges of the evening as an escape from the ATL terminal B zoo.

Cafe Intermezzo on Urbanspoon


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