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 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.