Sunday, January 31, 2010

Taco Mamacita

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Taco Mamacita
1200 Villa Place

Venturing out from the traditional is a-okay in our book. Just make sure it tastes good. Taco Mamacita mixes up the Mexican classics, with some new twists. Along the way you get a well designed and fun restaurant, with an outdoor deck that may prove to be one of the most popular in Nashville. Of course, all of this comes with a price. And in the end it’s a matter of what you get for your money.

Taco Mamacita opened in Chattanooga. It’s the brain child of long time restaurateurs Taylor and Mike Monen. Mike was the owner of the Sticky Fingers barbecue chain and sold it a few years ago. Taylor told us that too much downtime for Mike led to the vision for Taco Mamacita. Taylor is responsible for much of the menu design and the funky-chic décor.

They’ve trained the wait staff well. You can expect to be greeted at the door, and given a top to bottom explanation of the menu, if time allows. What they stress is that sauces and salsas are made fresh each day and are the original creations of the chefs. Now this is where things get a bit tricky. You have to pay for the salsa. This may seem like a rip-off for those who expect unlimited salsa and chips at most Mexican joints. For $2.50 you get a big bowl of handmade roasted tomato salsa. It’s a little sweet, a little hot and chock full of fresh tomato flavor. The chips are okay, and seem to be reasonably fresh on our visits. Is this worth $2.50? Yeah, I think I’d rather have good salsa and pay for it, than have lame salsa for free. Now this harkens back to the old argument: there are plenty of mom and pop Mexican joints in town that give you great, complex and handmade salsa for free. This is an argument you may have many times at Taco Mamacita. My answer is this: Taco Mamacita is a different animal altogether. Throw out the comparisons and judge the food and atmosphere versus the price.

Tacos are, needless to say, a big part of the menu. These are not your usual Mexican taco styles. The California Club is a jalapeno line mayonnaise based conglomeration of tasty apple wood smoked bacon, chicken and guacamole. Quite frankly the only thing that reminds you this is a taco is the flour tortilla and the guac. That said it is a flavorful treat. The 6 inch tortilla is over stuffed, but the price does bring pause. Is $3.99 worth it for a six inch taco? Maybe. The Shrimp Po’boy BLT is the next subject up for examination: the fried shrimp are small and lacking in real flavor. The remoulade and bacon bring things around a bit. It’s an average taco.

Don’t let this dishearten you. There is a bunch on the menu to love. The fresh guacamole is chunky and savory, with not much of the usual citrus bite. It’s really good, but also a bit expensive at $7.99 a shot. On the table you may notice the smoky Mama’s Chipotle Sauce. You must sample. It is so good that when we made a visit to the Chattanooga branch last fall we bought a pint of it to go. The elotes, Mexican street corn, is a highlight of the sides menu. It’s served on the cob, nicely roasted and topped with cheese and a light sauce. Thumbs up also for the chipotle turnip greens. They come with a smoky and spicy bite. The sweet potato fries are super thin, crispy and really salty. The flavor is good, at least when not competing with salt. A couple of other sides fall a bit flat in the flavor department: the jalapeno slaw and cilantro spinach rice just don’t hold up their end of the bargain.

The roasted Peruvian chicken has a prominent place on the menu, and for good reason. It’s roasted for a moist meat with fabulous crispy skin. A little chipotle and cilantro lime sauce on the side makes for a feast, and this my friends is a real bargain at $9.99. It’s too much chicken for one sitting and that price comes with two substantial sides.

Veggie Eater: The owners have managed to translate the same charm, funkiness, and vibe to the new Nashville location. I pined for margaritas on the patio, but, alas, it was a cold December evening on our first foray to this location. The margaritas are wonderful; no Rose’s lime juice or sweet and sour here. Initially, there is sweetness, without the processed juice acidity. That is quickly replaced by the assertiveness of the tequila; a perfectly balanced concoction. (The Elvez is traditional, and the El Camino adds orange juice – even better – Ed.)
On this trip, I opted for the Veggiladas. I’m morally opposed to cutesy titles, but am glad I got beyond the moniker. Fresh corn tortillas surround corn, feta and black beans, and are topped with cilantro cream sauce. Nothing gloppy here; all ingredients get to stand out. I opted for the sweet potato fries, which appear to be hand cut. They are crisp and fresh. Feel free to adorn with the homemade chipotle hot sauce, which may be one of the best hot sauces I’ve ever had; thick and smoky with a chipotle kick. I’ve still got plenty in the fridge at home for future use. My only complaint is everything is a bit pricey, but I think given the freshness and quality, I think well worth it.

Meat Eater: That’s my take as well. Sure, you’re going to spend more here than a traditional Mexican joint, a lot more. But this isn’t a traditional Mexican joint. It’s a fun, upscale restaurant with a great bar, cool patio and good drinks. I’ll pay more for that if the quality is there, and overall that’s the case. Perhaps those tacos could be a dollar cheaper, or a few inches larger. Either way, this will be the happy hour spot of the city come spring and summer. We’ll be there.
We paid $63 with tax and tip for a dinner visit with two entrees, appetizer, and three margaritas. A lunch trip for one cost $15 with tax and tip, for salsa and chips, and the two tacos and a side special.
Taco Mamacita on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Porta Via

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Porta Via
21 White Bridge Road

Sit next to the open kitchen. Watch the dough take a spin in the nimble hands of the chef. On to the next station, where toppings are applied quickly. See yet another chef slide the creation into the deep, bell shaped, wood fired oven with a long pizza paddle. That pizza is back out in a flash. The oven is that hot. The dough is that thin. The result: perfectly crispy crust, with just a little char here and there for flavor. It makes for one of the better pizzas in town. Porta Via is a newcomer with old roots; reborn after a stint many years ago in West Nashville. The good news is that the rest of the menu supports that pizza emphasis, making Porta Via a good bet for lunch or dinner.

You can taste the elemental pizza as the bread they serve in baskets. They toss an unadorned round of pizza dough into the oven, pull it out, and chop it up. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and fresh rosemary are the only accompaniments. You realize that the dough is not just crispy, but has a great taste. Of course the toppings are still critical and Porta Via serves the good stuff. The Quattro Stagioni features savory, herb sausage, roasted crimini mushrooms, earthy salami and Kalamata olives with a little vinegar bite. The result is a little crisp and a little chewy and with tons of flavor all around. Margherita is a classic example of pizza restraint at Porta Via. You won’t find the cheese and toppings piled on like a landscaping project. They respect Italian tradition by serving simple pies, with modest toppings. It allows every ingredient to sing.

Normally you might expect the rest of the menu to suffer, when so much hard work and tender care goes into making the pizza. For the most part that’s not the case at Porta Via. Start with the Crepe Florentine, it’s the ultimate comfort dish: light crepes, awash in a pesto cream bath and baked for some crispiness. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The appetizer arrives quickly enough to prevent the crepes from getting soggy.

Their signature pasta dish, the Porta Via, let’s you pick a pasta. We went with whole wheat linguine. While we got normal linguine, and that was a disappointment, it was light and carefully cooked. The bright tomato cream sauce has parmesan to thicken. Not great pasta or sauce by any means, but comforting. The Provencal Panini is a tangy Greek, feta salad stuffed into half of a warm French baguette. The warm chewy break snaps with the cold, tart salad. It’s a surprisingly fitting combination.

Veggie Eater: This makes for an enjoyable, if not perfect meal. Let’s start with the highlights. The tables near the kitchen allow a bird’s eye view of the process. In general, the staff and management appear to be having a good time. The restaurant has a fun, chic vibe, right down to the flat ware (really, check it out if you go). The big glasses of Yuengling beer are cheap. I love thin, crisp pizza, so this is my preferred version. The crust is allowed to take center stage, not drowned out by an excess of ingredients. And there are lots of fun ingredients to be had: arugula, egg, pine nuts, roasted onions, garlic, etc. That being said, I found my pizza, which was a make your own version consisting of arugula, garlic, and mushrooms, a bit stingy on the mushrooms. If I’m paying for the topping, I want to be able to see it. My other quibble was with the Caprese salad. Really, I should know better than to order a salad consisting of tomatoes and basil in December; it’s my own fault. But if a restaurant chooses to keep this item on the menu in winter, then I feel they have a responsibility to find edible tomatoes. These were the standard mealy, tasteless things we all buy at the grocery store because we believe we must have a tomato in December. Again, shame on me. The fresh milk mozz was refrigerator cold, so it lacked a bit in both flavor and texture. Last, but not least, I am not a big salter and I rarely reach for a shaker. However, I do believe salt has a place. Salt and a generous round of freshly ground pepper would have been appreciated. Alas, there were no shakers on the tables and no offer of a pepper mill.

Meat Eater: This is a bright, modern space with a warm feeling due to the open kitchen and friendly, bustling staff. It lives somewhere in the middle ground between casual and upscale. While we haven’t had room for gelato yet, it looks tempting. We paid $48 with tax and tip for two beers, two pizzas and an appetizer. The other visit was $38 with tax and tip for two beers, an appetizer, a sandwich and pasta.
Porta Via Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Goodbye Russia and Hello Catfish

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Midweek odds and ends

A reader pointed out last week that Taste of Russia in Cool Springs has closed. We verified that with the folks at Aleksey Market this weekend. The Taste of Russia location was a little hard to find, tucked away in an office park. We will miss the kind staff, cabbage piroshky and the chicken Kiev cutlets.

Meanwhile, you can find some daily German specials like goulash and schnitzel at Marcy’s Side Road Restaurant in Joelton. Marcella recently re-opened the restaurant, which had been Bill’s Catfish and Pizza. It’s located at 6165 Clarksville Pike. Our first visit was to see if the Catfish remained king, and indeed Marcy’s has done a good job of continuing the Bill’s tradition of crunchy batter and crispy, cake-like hush puppies. The homemade chicken noodle soup was comforting. We’ll try and get back for the German side of things soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Wild Cow

Nashville Restaurants and Food
The Wild Cow
1896 Eastland Ave.
(615) 262-2717

Punk rock on the stereo. Cool green paint on the walls. A mellow vibe. All of these things you might expect from a vegetarian restaurant. The bold flavors and daring tastes may be something you don’t expect from a Nashville vegetarian joint. The Wild Cow is indeed a bit wild.

You’d figure that mac and cheese would be an easy vegetarian dish. The Wild Cow takes things a couple of steps further. Everything on the menu is served vegan, which means in addition to no meat, dairy products and eggs are out as well. So, The Wild Cow folks serve up a vegan mac and cheese that bears little resemblance to the southern namesake. The small shells come with a really sticky brown sauce with a taste a little bit Indian and a little hard to define (the Veggie Eater thought perhaps brewers yeast?). It’s a great flavor though, and an interesting departure from the norm. And that sums up much of the cuisine at The Wild Cow. It may sound like something you’ve eaten before, but they take those flavors in a whole new direction. The asparagus soup is a prime example. Usually we think of asparagus puree in a soup heavy with cream. This version features a light, herby broth and crisp pieces of asparagus.

Sure, they try and ground the menu in choices that might be familiar. I find that to be a mistake, because while vegetarians might understand, quite often the complaint of meat eaters is “this tastes nothing like a burger…” A veggie burger shouldn’t taste like a burger. It should taste good. And this version really does. Mock chicken salad doesn’t taste anything like bird. The apple and grape version at The Wild Cow give it a bright, sweet and creamy taste that goes great on the whole grain bread.

The menu has been evolving in the first few opening weeks. There are usually three or four specials for the day, and the menu has been pared down a bit. The Vegan Philly Cheesesteak has been popular enough as a special to make the regular menu. The toasted bun has a little char for smokiness. Seitan has a tangy, savory flavor. Perhaps the only let down is the vegan cheese, it’s kind of boring. You can add real cheese to any dish by just asking.

It’s clear they specialize in creating great tastes with seitan, tempeh and tofu. No matter what negatives you associate with these ingredients The Wild Cow will surprise you with the diverse textures and flavors they can bring out.

The opening night featured a really nice curry. A spicy and bold chili was also a standout on that evening, hopefully to make an appearance on the soup menu on occasion. The bean salad creations are tangy and memorable.

Veggie Eater: Meat Eater suggested this for my birthday lunch this year and it was a lovely way to start my special day. Any place that regularly plays the Talking Heads automatically endears itself to me. I opted for the Buffalo Grinder with tempeh and optional provolone (real). The hoagie roll was both light and crusty. The tempeh was marinated and grilled; giving it smokiness and a wonderful texture (I prefer tempeh to tofu for sandwiches for this reason). Add a zippy ranch sauce, a bit of hot sauce, and lettuce and tomato and you have a great sandwich. I ate the whole thing (unusual for me) and didn’t even feel poorly afterword. My substituted side (sandwiches come with chips) was mashed potatoes in gravy. A bonus was that the potatoes were dirty; skins still on. However, they were a bit dry and under salted. The gravy was thick, but didn’t offer much contrasting flavor. The Meat Eater seemed happy enough on this adventure and I’ll happily return to sample other items.

Meat Eater: They serve vegan wine (pretty good actually) and a variety of juices and organic sodas. The Blue Sky Orange Devine, which features cane sugar, was a nice balance of sweet and bubbly. The cola was too sweet. The service is quick and friendly.

We’ll be back soon to keep up with the latest flavor twist and turns in the kitchen. It’s pretty cool that Nashville can have a vegetarian restaurant willing to take some chances and have so many successes.

For the second visit we paid $29 with tax and tip for a drink, soup, two sandwiches and an upgrade of two sides. It’s not cheap by sandwich joint standards, but there is a lot of work that goes into this food and it is well worth the money.
The Wild Cow on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Café Coco

Nashville Restaurants and Food
Café Coco
210 Louise Ave.
(615) 321-2626

Sometimes you have to lean back on the classics. We usually try and review the new spots in Nashville. But considering the many people out there who might be new to the area, we feel some responsibility to remind everyone of the legendary joints in town. Café Coco is a 24 hour a day staple for college students, hospital workers and anyone who enjoys good food. That makes a Café Coco a good stop after the bars, while studying or during that long double shift.

Coffee plays a starring role in this vibe. The place looks and feels like a coffee house. They serve up a variety of traditional coffee styles and a number of decadent lattes dressed up with flavors like mocha, tiramisu and white chocolate. Coffee comes in big mugs or to-go cups.

The menu runs wild, from sandwiches and salads to pasta and pizza. Breakfast gives many options for making your scrambled eggs a little fancy: black olives, avocado, pesto, sausage, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, turkey, ham, feta, jalapenos, to name just a few.

One late night visit prompts a Gold Rush: a thick, juicy chicken breast on a croissant. The Coco signature grill marks point to the press used to make the chicken, Swiss and mozzarella cheeses, mushrooms and onions all become gooey friends. The Americano is a BLT with turkey, spinach and focaccia bread. Once again the grilling brings it all together in a cheesey goodness. Feel homesick? Consider the peanut butter and jelly.

Pasta is also a good bet at Café Coco. The noodles are cooked al dente and the tasty sauces include pesto, Alfredo and a tomato cream. The French fries may not look very different at first. They’re the crinkle cut version, but cooked extremely crisp and served nicely seasoned. For the brave diner consider adding mozzarella cheese and hot beef gravy in the Coco version of the classic Canadian dish poutine.

Vegan and vegetarian items are clearly marked on the menu and there are many to from which to choose. Fresh greens and inventive ingredients make the salads stand out.

Veggie Eater: On one trip, I opted for the Formaggio sandwich; essentially a dressed up Italian grilled cheese Panini. It is stuffed full of Swiss, cheddar, and mozz cheese with tomato and pesto. The thick slice focaccia is a bit overwhelming and I would prefer more actual Italian cheeses (provolone or fontina anyone?), but this is not an Italian deli and the sandwich if not great, was good.

What I really like at Café Coco are the salads. The most recent visit found me intrigued by the California Sunshine. It’s a great mix of textures and flavors; baby greens, mandarin oranges, praline pecans, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, and gorgonzola cheese. The menu states you get a choice of raspberry or balsamic vinaigrette, but really they offer you any of their dressings. Better yet, the dressings are actually homemade, so this visit found me adorning my salad with blue cheese dressing. This dressing is not the gloppy hydrogenated oil mess you get from a bottle, but zippy and light with real chunks of cheese. I love a really good salad (far more important than dessert in my book) and the salads at Café Coco never disappoint. They are large in portion and generous with the various ingredients.

Meat Eater: You have your choice of scenery at Café Coco. Stay inside to get cozy with your neighbors. You’ll hear interesting conversations, many of which involve hook-ups or attempted hook-ups (want to hear my band?). Outside the patio is one of the best, leafy lunch spots in the city. Just watch out late night for drunken country stars.

One of the best things about Coco is the consistency. We’ve eaten there many times over the years and have yet to have a bad experience. Recently we paid $25 with tax and tip for one visit and $20 on another. We were well stuffed on both occasions.
Cafe Coco on Urbanspoon