THE SCOOP #3: Keep it Simple, Stupid

Baja Soul TaqueriaStarting a new restaurant is in some ways similar to starting a new blog. The goal is to start out small but strong. Stick with what you do best, eliminate the stuff that’s not so great. Add new features after you’ve tested out the basics and people keep coming back. In the beginning, keep it simple, stupid.

In an effort to heed my own advice, here’s restaurant review #3 in a streamlined, simpler format for easy reading. Bon appetit!

Restaurant: Baja Soul Taqueria, opened January 2012
Location: Birkdale Village in Huntersville, NC (in the former T1 Tapas space)
Atmosphere: Bold paint colors, dancing skeleton murals that look like Grateful Dead album cover art, contemporary casual furnishings, Mexican music, outdoor seating
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable, manager checked in twice with genuine interest

Drinks: Authentic mojitos with unique variations like strawberry basil, margaritas with fresh lime sour mix, and specialty cocktails like blackberry & mango “Mora Negra”. Aged tequilas by the glass, bottle, or flights. Small wine list & imported beers, nice selection of craft beers on tap.
Apps: Guacamole, ceviche, cheese dip, salsa trio, nachos. Not sure these qualify as appetizers but rather, “stuff on top of chips”. Two salads available as well.
Entrees: 12 tacos ranging from traditional fried fish w/ cabbage slaw to steak w/ carmelized onions & goat cheese. 3 quesadillas and 1 tostada with interesting ingredient combos like mango & achiote shrimp or fire-roasted green chiles & blue crab.
Sides: Plantains, red rice, 2 kinds of beans and street corn. Nuff said.
Desserts: Molten chocolate cupcake, tres leches cake, Kahlua ice cream pie. *Shrug*

Quality: Some tacos were lukewarm and lacked flavor (pork and mahi tacos) while others were piping hot and bursting with flavor (traditional fish and steak tacos). Sides were hit-or-miss: Mexican street corn was fresh and authentic, but charro beans were bland and runny. Thankfully, the cocktails kicked ass.
Price: About what you’d expect ($8-$11 for 2 tacos, $10-$14 for 3), except for one thing. They offer a handful of “Soul Salsas”… at $3 a pop! Some of these are basic salsas that are free anywhere else, like salsa verde and pico de gallo. Weirder still, they provide the typical free basket of chips & salsa when you’re seated, and offer unlimited refills. WTF?

Pros: Fresh, flavorful cocktails, tasty classic fish tacos (a rare find in Charlotte!). A nice change of pace from the (gag) chain Mexican restaurants in the area.
Cons: Spotty execution, lack appetizers without chips, charge for extra salsas.

Insider Tip: My server revealed that customers can order a different taco for every taco in their combo plate. So, if you and a guest each order a 3-taco plate, you can get 6 different tacos and try out virtually half the menu in one sitting.

THE FINAL WORD: This place has potential… if they can boost the flavor profile (and the temperature) of some of their dishes and add a few real apps to pair with those snazzy cocktails, they just might make it. But for crying out loud, quit charging customers for salsa. It’s like charging people for various butters to go with their free bread at an Italian restaurant. And no-one wants that. Keep it simple, stupid!

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The Foodie Who Can’t Cook

There, I said it. Well, I wrote it anyway. This self-professed foodie doesn’t actually know how to cook. Cook real meals, that is. I’m a master at microwaving dishes and adding fresh herbs and seasonings to kick things up a notch. And my cocktail mixing abilities have earned me some serious street cred… in the suburbs. And I can prepare a rather impressive arugula salad with real balsamic vinaigrette (from scratch!), but we all know that’s not really cooking. So, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.

In my defense, I’ve never really had a compelling reason to learn how to cook properly. For the last 10 years, my husband (a.k.a. Chef Hubby) has been preparing delicious meals on a daily basis, and genuinely enjoying it. Which is bizarre to me. Personally, cooking has always felt like a chore that should be avoided at all costs, second only to picking up dog poop in the backyard. But Chef Hubby seems to experience absolute delight when flinging ingredients around the kitchen using various utensils that I cannot even pronounce, along with the occasional near-house-fire or near-fatal-injury and a steady stream of cuss words, in order to eventually produce a spectacular dish.

Because of his culinary genius, many of our friends were not surprised when he gave up his stable job to follow his dream and go to culinary school to become a real chef. And I’m beyond proud of him for taking this risk and finding his true calling, but I’m also faced with a dilemma…

Chef Hubby has landed the internship of a lifetime at a highly acclaimed restaurant in Atlanta for the summer. Which is wonderful! There’s just one problem. This means I’m going to have to cook meals for myself. On a regular basis. And microwave meals, cocktails and arugula salads will only tide me over for so long. (Although, if I’m drunk off cocktails, I may not notice how bad my cooking is…) Let’s face it. Eventually I’m going to crave the wonderful meals I’ve been so ridiculously spoiled with over the years. Something tells me you have little sympathy for this predicament.

I realized action must be taken. So I (finally) asked Chef Hubby to teach me how to cook. For lesson #1, I decided on gazpacho (a chilled Spanish soup) and spinach-mushroom quesadillas. Ok. Quesadillas are no-brainer, for the most part. We had some leftover speck (salty cured ham) from our dinner at Rooster’s the evening before, and I discovered that by sauteeing this with chopped mushrooms, red onions, spinach, garlic and a little chicken stock and olive oil, you have a GREAT filler for quesadillas. Add a little goat cheese to the mix and stuff into a tortilla on a heated nonstick pan and voila! You have a kick-ass quesadilla.

Now for the gazpacho. I started with:
– 6 plum tomatoes
– 1 large red pepper
– 1/2 red onion
– 4 garlic cloves
(all cleaned & peeled) placed in a glass casserole dish. Added a heavy drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled on:
– cracked pepper
– sea salt
– harissa spices
Then popped the dish in the oven for about 15 min at 450°. This roasted the veggies to perfection and I placed them in the fridge to cool. After everything cooled, I added 1/2 of a chopped cucumber and used a hand blender to mix the veggies, since this seemed less intimidating than a giant mixer or complicated-looking food processor. Luckily, this worked out pretty good.

After that, the tricky part began. This is where the recipes (or chefs) stop providing step-by-step instruction, and simply tell you to add seasoning “to taste”. What the hell does that mean? It means this is where the artistry of cooking begins…

You can follow recipes all day long, but at some point, you have to determine with your own senses what tastes good. Not just the flavors in the dish, but the texture, color, viscosity (my first culinary term!) and overall appearance. This is where I had to rely on Chef Hubby for some guidance. Something was clearly missing from my gazpacho… but what?

With Chef Hubby’s coaching, I learned how to trust my instincts with food. If something tastes too sweet, it needs more salt or acidity (like from a citrus fruit) to cut through the sweetness. If it’s too bland, it needs more spices to give it depth. If it’s too thick, you need to thin it out with stock; or if it’s too thin, you need to add thickener with pureed veggies or starches. I finally began to see the true art behind cooking, and the technique of combining flavors, textures and colors to create balance.

The ability to create this balance will surely take years achieve, but now I’m actually eager to try. Though I don’t aspire to be a master chef, with practice (and trusting my instincts), I might eventually become a halfway decent cook!

It turns out, my gazpacho and quesadillas didn’t suck. I might even be so bold to say that they were rather tasty! So, there’s hope that this foodie will survive the summer without relying on a microwave. Or arugula. But don’t even think about taking away my cocktails.

THE SCOOP #2: Get out from under your rock

For those of you in Charlotte who have been living under a rock, famed restauranteur Jim Noble opened his second Rooster’s Wood-fired Kitchen restaurant in a swanky new uptown location (that’s “downtown” for all you outsiders) in February to rave reviews. And rightly so.

I visited the new Rooster’s recently and was thoroughly impressed. From the two story urban-farmhouse setup to the elegantly plated dishes and intoxicating scent of burning wood permeating the air, every aspect contributed to the feeling of being transported to some faraway city in Europe.

I started my dinner with the house-cured duck, which was a real treat. Loved how the flavor of fresh herbs underscored each bite and the accompanying bread was toasted in the wood-fired grill for a nice smoky char. Next I had the arugula salad with chevre and almonds, which was fresh and tasty but large enough to feed a small army so I boxed up half. After that I indulged in the short ribs, which were braised perfectly, bone-in. (Unlike some other short ribs I’ve had… see fake short ribs post)

The service was stellar as well – my server was new, but she knew the details of each dish well, and wasn’t afraid to ask others if she didn’t have the answer to a question. Wine pairing recommendations were spot-on and the manager came by several times to check in, taking attentiveness to a whole new level.

I also discovered that Rooster’s features “chalkboard menus” throughout the week. These are late night menus for post-10 pm meals, and the items on the chalkboard menus are no less drool-worthy than the regular menu. This is a refreshing alternative to most late-night dining options, which include deep-fried bits of unidentifiable objects and cheese plates long-past their prime. That being said, if you’re the type who likes to eat dinner at the senior-citizen-early-bird-special hour of 5 pm, this information will be of no use to you. And furthermore, you really need to get a life.

If you haven’t yet crawled out from under your rock long enough to check out the hottest new restaurant uptown, or worse, if you’re one of those delusional fools who avoids dining uptown due to “finding parking” as if it’s downtown L.A. (will save that rant for later), you’re missing out on one of the best dining experiences in town. Get in your car and go. Now.