Monday, December 8, 2008

Barberitos rolls a good one


After two trips to Barberitos on the Eastside of Athens in less than a week, I think impressed is a good word choice to describe my experience. Since Barberitos is my favorite restaurant already, I found I had to go twice, just in case, to see if I could find any flaws. It was hard.

My first trip was on Jerk Fish Fridays, which means, Fish Tacos! I personally had never been a fan of fish tacos because they just sound disgusting. I didn't think anyone should mix two perfectly good foods together to make some concoction I'd never venture to try. But, I tried it this Friday. It was superb. The fish was sauteed to goodness and mixed with just the right spice to make it delicious but not overrun with flavor. Top off the taco with their freshly made guacomole and some fresh sour cream and you're set. But, if you really want a taste that's over the top, you've got to add the chipotle ranch to your meal. A friend suggested it to me, and I've never eaten a burrito without it since.

Not only was the taco delicious, the chips were fresh out of the fryer and packed to the top with spice. Two different types of homemade salsa await you at the salsa bar and some of their special recipe hot sauce as well. I had Diet Coke to drink, but they also serve beer, both domestic and a few Mexican and local breweries. With my whole meal totaling $5.25, it was a good price for a lot better than Taco Bell.

My second trip on Sunday night I chose to try the ground beef Heavy D nachos. Though they are a little more expensive than the taco, I still found it tasty. I usually get steak, but decided to try the ground beef, once again looking for a flaw. The beef was dripping with flavor and it covered the nachos better than the steak in my opinion. Of course, nachos are usually eaten with your fingers, but these nachos piled high with guac, sour cream, mouth-watering melted cheese, and anything else you could think of, have to be eaten with a fork.

I'm a big guy, but I couldn't eat it all. And since it's right under $10 for the entire meal, it's good that most people could just share one helping. My dog Hank seconded my opinion as he inhaled my leftovers in the parking lot.

So, if you're looking for Mexican taste, without the sit-down and have-to-tip business and Taco Bell just isn't cutting it anymore. Go to Barberitos. With four locations in the Athens area, you've got to be close.

Verdict: Damn-good Mexican food, without the worry of tipping.

1860 Barnett Shoals Rd
Athens, GA 30605
(706) 549-9954
* approximate times

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

All the wrong spice at Five Star Day


“You should never have to salt soul food” was the final verdict of my companion as she lifted a pale forkful of the Five Star Day Café’s macaroni and cheese off her plate and then letting it drop on top of the rest of the quickly congealing mound. We were in Five Star Day’s baby-blue Athens’ Eastside location, where the food is deceptively billed as “gourmet soul food.”

Granted, soul food is a notoriously difficult term to define to an outsider. That’s because it is much more ephemeral than just a classic bit of oversalted meat and three vegetables, probably cooked with bacon. It’s a comforting and friendly quality that separates local legends like Weaver D’s from fast-food derivatives like Bojangles and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I’d venture to say that soul food is 50 percent atmosphere, and the Eastside Five Star Day easily bests its downtown counterpart. The quaint, mismatched tablecloths, flower fixtures and local art are the products of a clear community connection. Five Star Day strives to represent some of Athens’ weirder qualities by combing the feel of your grandmother’s kitchen with Edvard Munch-derived paintings. The overhead music is mostly local bands, and most of the staff moonlight as musicians, artists, actors and activists.

With that being said, the food at Five Star Day tastes like the cook has another job that he’d rather be doing. The most blatant culprit was the aforementioned pallid macaroni and cheese, an example of comfort food too self-conscious to be comfortable.

The daily special was a beef brisket, served along a bed of cabbage and sautéed tomatoes seasoned with paprika and diced red peppers. It was the most thoroughly seasoned item of the meal, and its flavor seeped across the plate into the gooey and fried corn and mashed potatoes. The tomatoes and cabbage brought both color and balance to a plate that could have been brought down by too much starch. It could pass for soul food on a good day.

My companion ordered the chicken and dumplings, which came adorned with a star-shaped biscuit. This attempt at flash barely compensates for a thin broth filled with too-doughy dumplings and stringy chicken. When paired with the maligned macaroni and cheese, the lack of taste becomes overbearing and tedious. I’m not a fan of salt, but nearly every bite of chicken and dumplings needed it.

Adding salt to soul food is the highest and most unfortunate form of irony. Fortunately, Five Star Day saves itself with the fried green tomatoes. Battered in thick corn meal and adorned with black-eyed peas, caramelized onions, hominy corn, diced peppers and an oil and vinegar sauce, they are the most unique flavor on the menu. Unfortunately, they are just an appetizer or side item, merely the supporting actors to a cast of underwhelming entrees.

Don’t get me wrong: aside from a few examples, the food at Five Star Day is not all bad-- it just claims to be more than it really is. This sense of culinary hubris pulls the food away from its roots, as if it is more concerned with adopting a type of style than offering substance. This notion is misguided, because soul food is supposed to communicate a feeling beyond the ingredients of the plate. It’s hard to point out exactly what ingredients are missing from the food at Five Star Day, but whatever it is, it can’t compensate for a chronic lack of soul.

VERDICT: More like a two-star day.

2230 Barnett Shoals Rd.
Athens, Ga.
229 E. Broad St.
Athens, Ga.

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East/West Bistro fails to impress


Because eating is such a routine and necessary activity, at times I think of it as a chore. I rarely call restaurant food “exceptional” or even worthy of its price, so I end up eating a lot of sandwiches and cereal. Like so many other restaurants, East/West Bistro didn’t move me. I might be picky, but this restaurant does not even come close to hitting the mark.

Having never been to this east-meets-west eatery, I had high hopes for East/West. Behind the spacious bar area is a beautifully constructed wine display. Warm decor and terracotta walls kept the momentum of my initial impression going, but as soon as we were seated, things began to roll downhill. The restaurant has a laid-back, alternative atmosphere, but perhaps too laid-back with regards to the wait staff; there were a number of servers with very dirty, long dreadlocks that made me fear slightly for my food.

There were very few other people dining on this Tuesday night, so our waitress greeted us quickly. They were out of one of my favorite pinot grigios, so I took extra time to peruse their wine list. East/West gets a lot of business from students, so naturally the wine list is simple and relatively inexpensive.

We started the night with appetizers. Asian pear hazelnut relish and tamarind, and wasabi aioli decorated a plate of buffalo mozzarella-infused crab cakes. Not the most harmonious combination, this quirky interpretation would never be able to challenge my allegiance to a traditional Maryland crab cake. The other appetizer, the sweet potato chips, was the highlight of our meal. Served with a bleu cheese dressing, the thinly-sliced sweet potato chips were outstanding; I was excited to try and make them for this upcoming Thanksgiving. But before I could even digest the appetizers, our entrees came.

My date’s dish tried to embody the East/West fusion theme of the restaurant: not enough sweet and sour pork, with cashews, onions and peppers, over too much yellow-tinted penne. It looked and tasted like a sub-par version of mall favorite Panda Express. He saved a portion, hoping for Wednesday’s lunch, but our waitress mistakenly threw it out. I did not, however, want to take home the rest of my tuna tataki. The eastern-inspired plate was a beautiful presentation, but nothing more. The tuna was tasteless and boring. The only thing I actually enjoyed was the seaweed salad and a disappointingly small spoonful of wasabi relish. It seemed like all the elements on my plate had been taken from a container and not actually made at the restaurant. I undoubtedly should have ordered a different entree from their massive menu.

Because the waitress discarded our leftovers, she offered us a complimentary dessert. I hoped to order a slice of the deep-dish apple pie or the tempting cookies’n’creme cake – but like the wine, the restaurant was out of both. Are Tuesday-night diners not worthy of a fully-stocked wine cellar and dessert tray? We settled for an Oreo cupcake a la mode and a piece of the mysteriously named Asian Dream pie. The first little mockery of a dessert was straight out of a grocery store bakery, a cold little white cupcake with the kind of overly sweet, maddeningly thick icing that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I always thought that “a la mode” implied that the dessert is heated before being served with ice cream, so I was annoyed at its complete lack of gooey-ness. The bizarre Asian Dream pie had a top layer the color of lime sherbet. It is flavored with the Chinese fruit yuzu, tasting something along the lines of fermented pineapple. The presentations were good, but dessert, like the courses before it, left me thinking, “I should have ordered something else.”

East/West has an ambitious, creative concept, but perhaps bites off more than it can chew. The menu is too large, and with the exception of the sweet potato chips, the execution is lackluster. Compared to similarly priced restaurants in Athens, like Last Resort or DePalma’s, East/West is lacking. Maybe we got the wrong things, or came on a bad night. But I do know that I won’t be coming back for more. I should have just stayed home for a sandwich.

VERDICT: Neither Eastern nor Western, this bistro only plummets further south.

351 Broad St.
Athens, Ga.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mexicali lacks taste, literally


Mexicali Grille has been serving the Athens community with its own brand of “authentic Mexican” food for nearly two decades.
With two locations, anyone in Athens has access to Mexicali. The margaritas are consistently voted the best in Athens, according to its Web site, and the dishes are described as “Mexican comfort food.” Mexicali Grille claims to provide its customers with the best quality, value and service in Athens.

I beg to differ.

The dimly lit establishment on College Station Road is one of the last places I’d go for quality or value. On a busy night the entrance alone would be enough to frighten away any party of more than two. The waiting area is nonexistent, leaving patrons to loiter outside if the restaurant is the least bit crowded.

As I walked in, luckily not subjected to the tiny waiting area between the wall and check-out counter, I noticed something strange. Many Mexican restaurants play Latino music to add to the atmosphere, trying to trick the customer into believing they are eating authentic Mexican dishes. Mexicali management apparently decided to forego the trickery and play a local classic hits station instead.

Then I started noticing other things that did not seem right. The wait staff consisted not of smiling men and women with interesting accents, but instead of tired-looking college students, who seemed ready to go home. My server was rather clumsy, spilling cold cheese dip all over my menu. “Just give it to me and I will go wash it off,” she said. I wonder how many times a night she has to wash her menus?

Mexicali’s Web site references a quote from stating the food is great and affordable. Since I do not know who the site is quoting, my best guess is someone who is not on a college budget and has suffered severe taste bud loss. The prices for the supposedly “great and affordable” Mexican food were outrageous. I have been to many Mexican restaurants and my plate is never over $8. The check for two adult meals, drinks and cheese dip included, was over $40.

The chilly cheese dip, which my menu enjoyed, was a little spicy for my taste, but otherwise not bad. I was pleased to see there was more than enough food, as there should be when charging roughly $10 per plate. But I was disappointed when I bit into my bland beef soft taco, which also was under heated. The rice was clumpy, but otherwise edible. I tried the chicken chimichanga, also lacking proper seasoning. My bland beef soft taco could not even be remedied by adding guacamole, since it too was tasteless. I might have had better luck nibbling on a napkin.

Beer selection was lacking, especially considering that Athens is a college town where drinking is a favorite common pastime. And oddly enough there were no Mexican beers on tap. Mexicali’s claims of authenticity were being destroyed with every passing moment.

I admit my experience may have been overshadowed by the fact that I felt as if I were eating in a dungeon. The poor lighting and hard booth seats made dining uncomfortable. Twice my drink disappeared at the same time the server did, forcing me to wait until she sashayed back to the table to grudgingly refill my sweet tea. Though not rude, the wait staff seemed indifferent and uncaring to customers. I watched as a family of four entered the restaurant and waited five minutes before anyone acknowledged their existence. The servers appeared more interested in their own conversations than in providing quality service.

I would not recommend Mexicali Grille. Its claims of serving quality, affordable food are utterly untrue. Cold cheese dip, under-seasoned meat and over-priced products make this the last place I’d go for a quality meal. There are plenty other Mexican restaurants in Athens, such as Taqueria del Sol, La Cazuela and La Parrilla, that provide a more authentic and pleasurable dining experience.

VERDICT: No es bueno.

2301 College Station Rd,
Athens, Ga.

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Cali 'N' Titos delivers burrito bliss


My walk to Cali ‘N’ Tito’s takes less than four minutes, but the destination feels like it should be a border or an ocean away. The first step onto the property falls on gravel, the staff is bilingual and the chips come in the colors of the Mexican flag.

The restaurant uses the casual slogan, “Enjoy Our Latin Thing!” and has an appropriately eclectic menu, featuring dishes native to several countries outside the United States. Visitors can order Cuban sandwiches, fried catfish burritos, fried plantains and staple Mexican selections like quesadillas and tacos. With the exception of the “Latin Lover’s Delight” tilapia dish and the 30-piece order of wings, no item on the menu exceeds $10. All trips abroad should be this reasonable.

The principal reason a dining experience here is unique, however, lies in the building, its decorations and the open, social atmosphere. Half the fun in visiting Cali ‘N’ Tito’s is playing the part of tourist or scavenger, noticing trinkets and details that are new to you, even if they aren’t new to the restaurant. The ceiling fans are idle not because of the temperature indoors, but because they could loosen items suspended from the beams overhead, possibly striking a customer with more culture than intended.

Depending on where you sit, you can spot a Super Pac-Man arcade game, a suspended bicycle and suitcase, framed paintings of matadors and advertisements for everything from Inca Cola to Nong Shim Bowl Noodle Soup, whose advertisement features both “The Best Taste Ever!” and “El Major Sabor de Siempre!”

“I feel condescended to by all these signs that aren’t in English,” my friend and one of two dining companions joked.

Cali ‘N’ Tito’s’ atmosphere is not foreign enough to induce culture shock, but some of the restaurant’s practices could jar first-time visitors. If you choose to bring your own beer, as you can in many indoor/outdoor restaurants, you have to pay $2 per person to drink them on any day Monday through Saturday. In addition, the staff provides little overall service—customers order up front, bus their own tables and fill up plastic cups from large metal cylinders marked “water” or “sweet tea” with Sharpie.

I had been to the restaurant before, and at least one thing remains constant: Cali ‘N’ Tito’s has the best burrito in Athens. “Tito’s Big Burrito” features a savory mix of meat, onions, peppers, mushrooms, rice, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese, and it has a more satisfying flavor than similar items at Agua Linda, Taqueria La Parilla and Willy’s Mexicana Grill. The first two lesser restaurants satisfy hunger more than taste, and their additional sauce or meal combinations fail to conceal a uniform blandness. The ingredients in Willy’s Mexicana Grill’s burritos are fresh and distinct but often unbalanced.

Cali ‘N’ Tito’s’ burrito delivers more color, smell and taste than the menu’s other items, which I often use to stave off my jog to the main-meal finish line. The potato-y slabs of fried sweet plantains, tiny tacos and empanadas are good, but pale in comparison. Avoid the overpriced, crumbling “Ricky Saltado” fajitas. The burrito is more filling, requires no assembly and gives a subtle unraveling of naturally sweet flavors.

Even with a BP gas station outside the window to my left, it was easy to forget that I was in a restaurant on 1427 South Lumpkin Street in Athens, Ga. A trip to the bathroom involves passing clothes lines, stacked dead televisions and doors marked with painted skeletons and “Men” or “Woman,” even though both units are single occupancy. Even the restaurant’s mistranslations are endearing.

The bulk of customers usually sit out front, where shrubs, trees, hanging records, plastic lounge chairs and a small boat attract hungry pedestrians, drivers and other potential diners. The business at Cali ‘N’ Tito’s has decreased dramatically and will remain low because of the cold, not the quality of the food. Cali ‘N’ Tito’s, like other exotic locales, depends on a tourist season. Brave the weather or make the trip when the heat and your appetite are on the rise.

VERDICT: Off-the-wall decor and on-the-spot burritos.

1427 South Lumpkin Street
Athens, Ga.
(706) 227-9979