Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

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We Americans have an impressive habit of taking other countries’ holidays, removing all cultural significance, and replacing it with drinking. St. Patty’s is the obvious example, where the patron Saint of Ireland’s religious contributions are largely overshadowed (at least in NYC) by overflowing rivers of Guinness and Jameson flowing into the mouths of drunken revelers who wouldn’t know Erin if she was going bragh right in front of them.

Cinco de Mayo is another one of these appropriated holidays — take a moment, do you know what it celebrates? I’ll admit I didn’t know it myself until a few years ago, and only because the news was running stories about people’s ignorance. Mexican Independence? Nope, that’s on September 16th (and has an awesome subtitle of “Grito de Dolores” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grito_de_Dolores). End of the Mexican-American War? No to that as well. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army unexpectedly defeated the much stronger and larger French forces (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo).

So much like St. Patty’s, for most the holiday has become a celebration of inebriation — Cinco de Drinko, as it is actually advertised. I wish I could say that I celebrated in a more authentic spirit, but although I didn’t have any tequila, I did indulge in another American appropriation of Mexican heritage — gooey, cheesy, meaty nachos. That’s right, in this edition of Brief Bites we’re taking a trip to Nachotown, care of one of the most highly lauded NY spots, Taqueria Diana.

The Set Up:

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Taqueria Diana is located right off of St. Mark’s Place on Second Ave, prime feeding grounds for pre-and-post bar-hopping NYU students. My NY dining list contains a disproportionate number of restaurants on St. Mark’s, since the street and surrounding blocks are packed to the brim with eclectic spots, from classics like Mamoun’s Falafel to Khyber Pass (serving Afghani food). In fact, Taqueria Diana is only a few blocks away from another California-Mexican taco spot, Otto’s Tacos, which I hope to cover in another post.

 

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools.

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools. You can see that cooking and prep make up most of the establishment.

I’d imagine real estate is at a premium in this area, so it should come as no shock that Taqueria Diana is only a step up from hole-in-the-wall-sized. Although there are a few bar-height counters and stools at the back of the restaurant, the space is dominated by the cooking/assembly/cashier counter. A small prep kitchen sits in the back. Unfortunately, I had brought 5 friends with me to Taqueria Diana, and we soon discovered that we’d have to take all of our food to go. For cheese-and-sauce heavy dishes like nachos, tacos, and quesadillas, that means cooling and congealing time. I say this having fully enjoyed the dishes I ate, but cautioning that an ideal Taqueria Diana experience should probably be capped at a group of 3.

 

The Bites:

Between the six of us we basically sampled all the categories on the menu — Jacob and I split the Pollo Nachos, Al Pastor Taco and Rajas Taco, Diana got the Al Pastor Nachos, Michael got a Pollo Burrito, and Dan and Laura split the Asada Nachos and a Pollo Quesadilla Suiza. We missed out on the straight-up Roast Chicken and assorted Sides, but covered all the proteins except for the Carnitas.

 

 

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

You should really look at Yelp for accurate pictures of the nachos, because the depth of the mountain of chips is hidden by their being crammed into a take-out box. Jacob’s and my Pollo Nachos (chicken, chips, black beans, cheese, salsa, with added guacamole) seemed to be an endless, delicious vortex of cheese, guacamole and beans. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the chicken, which I assume is the same meat as offered in the Roast Chicken section. It was mostly sizable hunks of dark meat, juicy and well-seasoned, discernibly more flavorful than your average slices of grilled chicken breast. These nachos were expertly put together, as evinced by the existence of still crispy chips within the pile of semi-liquid condiments. Speaking of which, Taqueria Diana offers a number of salsa and sauces with which to top your dishes, available in unlimited quantities if you can dine in. This adds another layer of customization to the nachos, allowing to select a protein, type of beans, add on crema or guac, and then top with the sauces of your choosing. Unfortunately, our grand plan of dining al fresco in the courtyard by St. Mark’s in the Bowery turned out to be flawed, as a brutal wind kicked up out of nowhere and left us shivering and shoveling Tex-Mex into our mouths. Jacob and I were so desperate to eat our food and get out of the cold that we failed to crack open even one of the sauces we’d thrown into our bag. Yet another reason to come back and dine in at Taqueria Diana. Honestly, though, I was very satisfied by their nachos. The chips were fresh and just slightly salty, the salsa was made of sweet tomatoes, the guacamole was smooth and rich with a strong avocado-forward flavor, and I even made an effort to up my spice tolerance the smallest bit by taking on the jalapenos. The only strange ingredient were rounds of raw carrot, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen on nachos before, and barely made an impact taste or texture-wise.

 

 

The sadly soggy Rajas and Al Pastor Tacos -- promising in notion but not made for transit.

The sadly soggy Rajas (on the bottom) and Al Pastor Tacos — promising in notion but not made for transit.

Alas, our tacos didn’t hold up nearly as well. They were composed of thin, possibly hand-formed tortillas that soaked through during the transit and nacho-consumption period, literally falling to pieces when first picked up. Of the two fillings, I preferred the Al Pastor Taco (spit-roasted pork, corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro) to the Rajas Taco (Poblanos, Corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro), because most of what I got out of the Rajas was the heat from the peppers (still not too good at that spice thing, I guess). Despite the descriptions on the menu, our tacos seemed to have different toppings, the Rajas getting cotija cheese and sliced radishes, while the Al Pastor had lime and what looks like a squash blossom of some sort. The fact that everything was mushed together and muddled by the take-out box — which proved beneficial to the nachos — here left me tasting only the most prominent elements of the tacos, which ended up mostly being the meat from the Al Pastor. Taqueria Diana does seem to have a gift for proteins, however, since the pork was just as juicy and flavorful as the chicken. Doing a comparison between the regularly cooked carnitas and the spit-roasted al pastor might be another reason to return.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is -- worth another shot if eaten straight away.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is — worth another shot if eaten straight away.

 

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, I’d fully endorse a visit to Taqueria Diana, and hope everyone takes this as a cautionary tale of how NOT to do so. Even with all of the mishaps and weather-related misfortunes, the food was fresh, abundant, and packed with flavor. Except for the more proportionate tacos, Taqueria Diana’s dishes can be easily shared, or serve as more than one meal — Diana couldn’t finish her nachos, and although I didn’t take a picture of it, the Quesadilla Suiza looked like an explosion of meat and cheese to put a Taco Bell Crunchwrap to shame (yes, I’m going to try one when I go back). I’m telling you now I plan on returning, possibly by myself to make sure I get a seat at the bar. I know it’s far from authentic fare, but there’s a good chance you’ll find me at Taqueria Diana on September 16th, celebrating Mexican Independence Day as any patriotic American should — by diving mouth-first into that big ol’ melting pot.

 

Taqueria Diana

129 Second Ave (between 7th and St. Mark’s)

http://www.taqueriadiana.com/

Brunch at Etta’s: Come for the Seafood, Stay for the Pie

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Back when I lived in Philadelphia during college, long before I had any idea what a restaurateur was, or that there could be such a thing as a restaurant empire, I knew the name Stephen Starr. I heard locals and upperclassmen talking about his numerous restaurants in Philly, covering cuisines from France (with a personal fave, Parc) to Japan (Pod), Cuba (Alma de Cuba), America (Jones) and beyond. In my four years, I managed to go to a few of his restaurants, but I knew plenty of people who made it a mission to hit the whole list. Since I graduated, Starr’s reach has expanded even further, with new restaurants in Philly, New York, DC, and even a couple in Florida.

The point is this — locally, Starr was a brand name in Philadelphia, and simply mentioning his ownership of a restaurant usually was enough to indicate it was worth trying (even if some were more successful than others). When researching restaurants in Seattle prior to my first trip, I kept coming up against another name that reminded me of Stephen Starr and his local reputation — Tom Douglas. (You could argue that a better model might be Mario Batali, since Douglas started as a chef, but I call nitpicking.)

Douglas owns 10 restaurants in Seattle, most of which are located downtown. According to our waitress, Douglas has received offers to open spots in other cities, but he always jokes that he likes to walk to work. He’s received the James Beard award for Northwest Chef in 1994, written several successful cookbooks, and started lines of spice rubs and soups (apparently sold at Costco).   I’d been hoping to try out one of his establishments my first trip out, but Dan had plenty of food suggestions before we even got to big name brands. Thankfully, we managed to sneak in a brunch at Douglas’s seafood restaurant near Pike Place Market, Etta’s.

 

First Impressions:

A peek into Etta's laid-back, approachable interior.

A peek into Etta’s laid-back, neighborly interior.

Etta’s was the second restaurant opened by Tom Douglas, after his inaugural foray, the Dahlia Lounge (located only a few blocks away). Etta’s immediately gives off a hip, casual tone through its combination of open, comfortable leather booths, warm woods, and beautiful, multicolored glass light fixtures hung throughout the restaurant. The space is split into two dining areas, one side holding the bar with larger booths, and the other filled with mostly tables. Pieces of art line the bright red walls, from portraits to scenes of Pike Place and other Seattle spots. Up by the entrance rests a small stack of Douglas’s cookbooks, and a selection of his “Rubs with Love,” which are for sale at the restaurant, or just next door at the Rub Shack takeout counter.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

When I made the reservation the night before, the host had asked if we would mind throwing a chair at the end of a booth to fit everyone, but fortunately when we arrived they had a larger table ready for us. The service was speedy, and our waitress was very kind and happy to answer our myriad questions about the menu and the Douglas mini-empire.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

 

The Food:

Although it features classic comfort food dishes, like corned beef hash and cinnamon french toast, Etta’s focus is seafood — no surprise with it sitting so close to the bay and Pike Place Market. With this in mind, both of my parents and Dan opted for the Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict. Leah and I went more land-based: she ordered the Etta’s Breakfast, and I gave into my well-established weakness for Mexican brunch with the Chorizo and Egg Tostadas. And of course, there was dessert. We all shared a piece of the famous Triple Coconut Cream Pie, world-renowned and sold at all of Douglas’s restaurants.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict -- when eggs aren't decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict — when eggs aren’t decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat (and hollandaise, of course).

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict (house english muffin, spinach, crab-butter hollandaise) arrived simply plated and generously doused in hollandaise sauce. The english muffin, along with the rest of the baked goods offered at Etta’s, is sourced from Dahlia Bakery, the takeout offshoot of Dahlia Lounge (Douglas’s reach is far and wide), and you could tell this muffin was freshly made. The bread was plump and chewy, with a crunchy toasted top that held up well against the slathered crab-butter hollandaise. Thick shreds of crab meat poked out from under the egg, and while my mother thought the dungeness lacked flavor, my father and Dan seemed to really like it. For what it’s worth, the small bite I had seemed relatively crab-forward. All three agreed the eggs were well-executed, although I thought the ones on my mother’s plate were a little overdone and lacked my preferred level of yolk runniness.

Leah also seemed to enjoy the eggs in her Etta’s Breakfast (two eggs, ham, steak or bacon, home fries), which she got over medium. Now here there seemed to be some very loose yolks on display. Obviously, as a vegetarian, she opted out of the ham/steak/bacon option, getting a side a fruit instead. The only slip-up at Etta’s came from the homefries. Dan, of exceptionally sensitive palate, immediately detected that the potatoes had been fried in bacon-fat, which we confirmed with our waitress (though it doesn’t say this on the brunch plates descriptions, it is specified on the list of a la carte sides). The waitress was very apologetic, offering to bring Leah more fruit or bread. We all agreed it probably would have been best to comp us Leah’s dish (or the dessert) to make up for the mistake (since Leah was clearly going for a vegetarian option), but at least the staff at Etta’s admitted the error and was properly apologetic. As it happens, the potatoes were pretty tasty, cubed relatively small and with a snappy outer crust and starchy, soft interior.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

I was a little nervous about foregoing the seafood option at a fish-centric restaurant, but my Chorizo and Egg Tostadas (gabino’s guacamole, roasted tomatillo salsa, cotija) sent me over the moon. I had been tempted by the shrimp and grits, but our waitress steered me to the tostada, explaining her love of the dish, and revealing that it was a much improved reworking of the previously lackluster Huevos Rancheros. Unlike the other brunch items, my dish arrived in a shallow oval bowl, inside of which were two 6-inch fried tortillas, sitting on a layer of mashed black beans, and topped with a scrambled egg/chorizo mix, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, cotija cheese, and a few sprigs of cilantro. I can’t go on enough about the one-two punch of flavor and textural contrast in this dish — the earthy black beans, the spicy chorizo bolstered by the creamy scrambled eggs, the refreshing lettuce and guacamole, the salt of the cotija and the crunch of the tortilla, it was just a savory, satisfying combination of the best of breakfast and lunch tastes. Boldly spiced and filling, it was an ample portion that stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon (well, the pie helped, too).

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Speaking of, the Triple Coconut Cream Pie (with shaved white chocolate) definitely lived up to its reputation. This was a dessert I had read about on CakeSpy, had seen highlighted on Chase Sapphire commercials featuring the Top Chef Seattle winner, and had discovered endless rave reviews on Yelp and the Internet at-large. My mother and I had actually considered making it for our Jews-do-Christmas-Eve dinner (in fact, we ended up making Pecan Praline Bread Pudding, since the pie at Etta’s was too good to be topped). Now the triple aspect comes from the infusion of coconut throughout each structural element of the pie — there’s coconut in the crust, the pastry cream is half coconut and half cow’s milk, and the topping is coconut whipped cream (along with curls of shaved white chocolate and toasted coconut). As I mentioned before, this item is served at every Tom Douglas restaurant, and once you dig in, it’s clear why. If you’re a fan of coconut, this pie is manna from heaven. You can’t escape the flavor, and the pie itself is just a testament to the craft — a sweet, buttery crust that stands up against the filling, thick, decadent pastry cream strongly tasting of vanilla and coconut and perfectly eggy and custardy, leading you into the fresh whipped cream and the sweetness of the white chocolate. The toasted coconut gives the barest break from the sugar, and is the cherry on top of a beautifully composed dessert, from the delicately piped whipped cream to the stiff custard that clings to your fork like a great pudding. Yup, I bought the hype, I drank the Kool-aid, and where on Earth can I get a slice of this coconut nirvana on the East Coast?

 

Final Thoughts:

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front -- how can you beat that?

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front — how can you beat that?

I would definitely recommend a trip to Etta’s the next time you’re in Seattle. Not only does it offer a sampling of the Tom Douglas oeuvre, but you end up in a great location and get a satisfying meal to boot. My only gripe would be the mix-up that occurred with Leah’s dish, which could be easily remedied in the future with a few edits to the menu’s descriptions. I’m hoping I’ll get to try out some more Douglas ventures on my next visits — I’ve heard wonderful things about the Brave Horse Tavern, and Serious Pie (you know I have to see how Seattle pizza compares to NY dough). While Stephen Starr expands his gastronomic galaxy across the East Coast, I think it’s admirable you can’t separate Tom Douglas from Seattle. It makes me feel like I’m getting a taste of the city from a man who truly loves where he lives. I’m sure it’s just as much of a tourist-bid as the stalls in Pike Place, but for an out-of-towner just getting her bearings, I’ll buy into it, hook, line and sinker. Plus, the man just makes a damn fine piece of pie.

 

Etta’s

2020 Western Avenue

Seattle, WA 98121

http://tomdouglas.com/index.php?page=ettas

Sans Mystery Meat: Dinner at Cafeteria

In the arts there is a concept known as the “Rule of Three,” which basically posits that information grouped in threes is more effectively communicated than in any other number. This is why there are Three Little Pigs, three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, and three Star Wars films (in my universe). The power of a triad comes from the creation of a progression — the audience is shown two similar items that set up an expectation — followed by the subversion of that progression by the final piece. We delight in this surprise, in having our foregone conclusions flipped on their heads. I find that same wonder when I encounter new takes on traditional food, when my preconceived notions of taste and texture are counted on, and then thrown out the window. It’s what made the Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream so appealing, and what makes me desperate to visit Peanut Butter & Co. for their spin on a PB&J.

My dinner at Cafeteria this weekend was an exercise in expectation subversion, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you decide to get whimsical with well-known recipes, you better deliver on quality, and thankfully, my meal at Cafeteria was far beyond lunchlady ladling.


First Impressions:

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.


This was actually my second time at Cafeteria, but my first visit was for a first date a couple of years ago, so let’s just say the restaurant itself was not the center of my attention. This time I was hosting my college roommate Megan for a weekend visit, and the two of us were meeting another friend for dinner, so I got to appreciate the venue a bit more. Cafeteria is located in Chelsea, and features an aesthetic that walks the tight-rope between modern restraint and self-aware winking. The decor is chic, black and white, and featuring lots of cut outs and gleaming surfaces. It appears about as far from the average dumpy cafeteria as you can get. Megan commented that it actually reminded her of Jones, one of our favorite Stephen Starr restaurants in Philadelphia (where we went to school). Jones has a similar take on down-home American food — it’s like gourmet IHOP (I highly recommend their chicken and waffles if you’re in Philly).

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it's front windows open for sidewalk seating.

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it’s front windows open for sidewalk seating.

However, Jones does not venture into camp the way Cafeteria does. Megan and I arrived early, so we got drinks at Cafeteria’s small lounge area downstairs. The drink menus featured a shirtless man posing seductively with a cheeseburger, which some could take as a heavy-handed cypher for the restaurant’s goal of making comfort food sexy. Fortunately, this was Cafeteria’s most over-the-top moment, well, that and the names of the cocktails.

Our alluring drink menus.

Our alluring drink menus.

Speaking of which…

The Food:

My cocktail -- "Liquid Passion"

My cocktail — “Liquid Passion”


Cafeteria offers an extensive drinks menu, from beer and wine to some playfully named cocktails. Megan and I decided to embrace a girly stereotype or two and ordered off of the champagne-based section of the cocktail menu. Inspired by my fruit-and-vegetable adventures in Israel, I had the “Liquid Passion,” composed of prosecco, passion fruit juice, and “edible flower.” I really enjoyed the cocktail, which was pretty much a passion fruit bellini, although I couldn’t tell you what the edible flower added to the experience, in taste or texture. But I would consider bringing along some passion fruit juice instead of OJ or peach to my next brunch picnic.

Megan's drink, the "White Peach Classico"

Megan’s drink, the “White Peach Classico”

Megan got the “White Peach Classico,” made up of prosecco, “artisanal peach bitters,” Gran Classico and burnt orange zest. This cocktail was well balanced, and both Megan and I commented that the peach flavoring was subtle — more natural than the Del Monte peaches in syrup cloying sweetness. Again, there was no real indication of where the burnt orange zest was, except for some lingering pieces of peel at the bottom of the glass.

When Jacob joined us he branched out beyond the bubbly beverage, choosing the “Cafeteria Cosmo” — Svedka Clementine, cranberry and passionfruit juice. Tasty and dangerous, since it was one of those cocktails where you’re not sure if you’re actually drinking alcohol.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the "Cafeteria Cosmo" on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the “Cafeteria Cosmo” on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.


As with most of my meals with Jacob, we decided to go family style on dinner, and fortunately Megan has similar priorities about trying as many dishes as possible. We ended up ordering an assortment of appetizers and sides and one entree to share, which ultimately verged on too much food for the three of us, but we were troopers and took one for the team … and then walked down for dessert at Big Gay Ice Cream (I wasn’t letting Megan leave New York without trying the Salty Pimp).

The meal started with complimentary cheddar biscuits and honey butter. The biscuits were warm from the oven, soft and doughy, with just a hint of cheese, and did a great job of putting me in the spirit for some well-executed comfort food. I actually preferred them on their own, finding the addition of the honey butter a little too rich. I also appreciated the presentation of the biscuits in a newspaper-lined basket, immediately setting the tone of elevated familiarity.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night. You can see the cheese flecked throughout the dough.


For our appetizers we chose the Crispy Green Beans, and a Cheddar and Fontina Macaroni and Cheese. Cafeteria actually has four types of mac and cheese on its menu (or the fifth option of the “Mac Attack” tasting of three), but Jacob is a seasoned Cafeteria vet and guided us towards the more classic two-cheese option.

It's still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

It’s still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

I have little love towards green beans in general. As a child they were one of my least favorite vegetables (along with peas and broccoli), but I’ve come around to them depending on how they’re prepared. Basically, add enough butter to any previously-loathed vegetable and I’ll dig right in. The Crispy Green Beans were lightly fried in a delicate batter, with their green skins still visible through the crust. As advertised, they were crispy without providing a real crunch, so you still had the vegetal flavor as dominant, heightened by the salty, buttery coating. The dish came with a grilled lemon and a soy-based sesame ginger dipping sauce, although again I thought the beans were better sans sauce. Adding soy on top of the salted, fried strips was too much salt for me. Despite my negative history with green beans, this dish was actually one of my favorites of the night.

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so ... a mac and cheese cheese?

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so … a mac and cheese cheese?

The mac and cheese was a strong contender, but I didn’t find it innovative enough to stand out. Perhaps my disappointment is unwarranted, considering we went for the more classic take on mac and cheese, over the truffle oil or buffalo blue cheese, but my feelings for the dish are largely “delicious, but not something I would order again.” The portion would have been enough for someone’s entree, but split between three people it was a reasonable appetizer. There was a defined crust that gave way to a cheesy roux and al dente noodles, and there’s no arguing with a pairing like fontina and cheddar. I definitely enjoyed it more than the dishes I’ve tried at S’Mac, but compared to the interesting interplay of texture and taste with the Crispy Green Beans, the mac and cheese felt a little “old-hat.”

For our main course we shared the Black Kale Salad, the Zucchini Parm Latkes, and the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

The Black Kale Salad -- a one two punch of spice and bitter -- not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad — a one two punch of spice and bitter — not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad is a new seasonal menu item. It seemed like Cafeteria rotates a significant number of dishes each season, as Jacob’s favorite dessert is no longer being offered (a homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, curse the cruelty of fate!). In fact, if you’re mildly obsessive like me, you will note that the kale salad described on Opentable’s Cafeteria menu page is different from the one we encountered at dinner. This brand spanking new salad boasted black kale (naturally), with pine nut gremolata, mint, ricotta salata, and a jalapeno grilled lemon vinaigrette. All three of us are wimps when it comes to spicy food, so we opted to have the dressing on the side. However, after a few forkfuls into the salad it became clear that the bottom of the plate had been lightly coated with the jalapeno vinaigrette, leading to some impolite grimaces as we tried to put on brave faces. I’ve also yet to fully get onboard the kale train, so I was hoping that the rest of the items in the salad would balance the bitterness of the greens. The mint and jalapeno did offer up some strong punches of flavor, and the ricotta salata worked to cool things down a bit, but overall I was looking for a light and refreshing dish to counterbalance the heaviness of the rest of the meal, and I just found the salad overwhelming, jumping back and forth from bitter to spicy.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron skillet.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron pot.

The Zucchini Parm Latkes sounded like an interesting meshing of Eastern European and Italian food, so I was eager to see how they would pan out. To be honest, I didn’t taste the “parm” part, but the pancakes were fried to the perfect point of crispyness, and I appreciated that they were not thick patties of starch. My pancake had good crunch to it, although I missed the biting contrast of an onion (you know how I feel about onions in my latkes). I could have sworn I detected an herby, almost mint taste running through my latke.  At first I thought it was just the kale salad lingering on my tongue, but Jacob agreed that he tasted mint or chives of some sort, which threw off the buttery, warm flavors of the latke. The best part of the dish was the apple sauce — basically a thick apple compote, nearly the density of apple pie filling, fresh, sweet, and chunky with a real crisp apple taste. I could easily imagine it on the table at Thanksgiving.

My personal winner of the night -- the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My personal victor of the night — the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My favorite dish of the night was the Pecan Crusted Catfish, despite the fact that I’ve never really liked catfish. It’s an unreasonable excuse, but whenever I see catfish on a menu I immediately think of the live fish and get a little bit grossed out. Something about the whiskers throws me off. I mostly pushed for ordering this dish because of how I imagined the combination of a pecan crust and the included sides would work together. The dish came with a sweet potato hash, smoked Cipollini onions, and a red pepper emulsion. The fish was tender and flaky, providing a nice contrast with the crunchy pecan coating. It will come as no shock that I loved the sweet potato hash. The smoky onions and bright acidity of the red pepper sauce helped to tame the sweetness of the pecans and sweet potatoes. Looking back on it, the catfish itself was pretty much just a vehicle for the other flavors in the dish, since I can’t say anything specific about the fish’s flavor. However, the fish did nothing to detract from my appreciation of the rest of the dish, so I’d happily order it again. Like my other favorite of the night, the Crispy Green Beans, it was a sophisticated take on a comfort food standard, elevating a commonplace fish like catfish with a novel crust and sides that worked together to create an unexpected starring element.


Final Thoughts:

The word “cafeteria” generally conjures up such appetizing phrases as “hairnet,” “glop,” and “mystery meat.” But thankfully Cafeteria the restaurant is well aware of those standards and is happy to toy with them for your benefit. They’re encouraging you to engage your expectations and hope that they’ll be twisted and turned around — that your order of steamed, limp green beans will be battered and crisply fried, that you can choose between meatloaf, biscuits and gravy, or chicken paillard any time of day, and that you’ll see nary a plastic tray nor lunchlady in sight. I really enjoyed my dinner at Cafeteria because it took advantage of my curiosity. I wouldn’t normally order green beans or catfish, but I was intrigued by the way Cafeteria was reimagining them. Sometimes that leap of faith fell flat on the floor, but in other cases I discovered a new appreciation for foods I’d written off.

Maybe what we’re forgetting is that the root of the American cafeteria is the idea of communal dining, of taking a break from work or school to sit down and press the pause button on everything but the food in front of us. Yes, Cafeteria is about as far from my middle school lunchroom as you can get, but even without the little cartons of chocolate milk, I couldn’t help but think of the sheer joy of breaking free from classes and responsibilities and getting to hang out with my friends. For that aspect, Cafeteria happily hits the nail straight on the head.


Cafeteria

119 7th Ave (Corner of 17th St)

http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/