El Chile Cafe Y Cantina

1809 Manor RdAustin, TX 78722 • (512) 457-9900 • elchilecafe.com
There is a bit of a Floridian vibe going on here if you ask me, with its pastel, aqua green walls and the sizeable patio out front. But the menu is full on TEX-MEX from the puffy tacos to the margaritas, which make a long day all worth it.Speaking of puffy tacos, if you’ve never had them, they are essentially fried taco shells that puff up around varying ingredients. Of the three we had though, I only found the veggie to be great, made with portobellos as the star. So skip the chicken and the pork.

The guac is also good, but the salsa is just friggin’ weird. It’s NOT salsa. I don’t care what local custom this is supposed to be, but that is the poorest excuse for salsa I have ever had.

I also didn’t love the habanero carrot sauce, mostly because it’s extremely lacking in heat considering that it’s supposedly made with habaneros.

For dessert, I thought the tres leche was pretty good, but it is simply outmatched by the chocolate pecan pie, which just might be one of the best I’ve ever had. So dense and rich with dark chocolate that you will contemplate ordering a second slice to take home.

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Girl & the Goat

809 W Randolph St. Chicago, IL 60607(312) 492-6262girlandthegoat.com

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As you may have guessed, I love the name. It’s got a critter in it and alliteration. What more could you want? Good service? Check. Hip décor? Check squared. Great cocktails? Check-a-palooza. Great food? Well, depends on what you get, and I tried a lot.

It’s all small plates, so it’s a bit hard to distinguish between the appetizers and the entrees, but whatever you want to call them, be sure to get the warm marinated olives. They are tops. Never had better. Not even in Europe.

Another kickass dish are the green beans in fish sauce vinaigrette with cashews. It stole the show away from the cauliflower dish that so many others rave about. Sure it has pickled peppers (assumingly picked by Peter Piper), pine nuts and mint, but if you’ve ever eaten the cauliflower at Ilili or Tamarind in NYC, or Cleo in LA, this cauliflower is a mere apprentice in the shadow of their mastery. Whereas those green beans are Ultimate worthy. Trust me.

After that I’d go with the sweet corn pierogies with green goddess and rhubarb chimichurri (pictured). Or the pig face served with a sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine, maple and potato stix. So good and definitely the better way to go versus the goat shank.

But buyer beware, because not everything is worth your hard-earning coin. I say skip the shishito peppers. If you’ve had one, you’ve had them all, and there are so many other original dishes to be had.

The grilled baby octopus is decent with its guanciale (cured pork), fava beans, pea tips, pistachios and lemon vinaigrette, but not at the level of those winners I mention above. Same goes for the broccoli with smoky bleu cheese, the roasted beets with avocado crème fraiche and the kohlrabi slaw with fennel, toasted almonds and blueberries.

And finally, for dessert, the tres leche was the best of the bunch for me, with rhubarb, pink peppercorn and strawberry sorbet. It’s not so great that I would recommend force feeding it down your gullet if you’re already stuffed with everything else, but if you’ve still got room for jello, then go for it!

3 teeth

Juvia

1111 Lincoln Rd. Miami Beach, FL 33139 •  (305) 763-8272juviamiami.com

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The setting is an absolute showstopper (pictured). Clean modern lines and glass. Half outdoor, half in. Feels like something Mies Van Der Rohe might design. But here’s the kicker, it’s located on the top floor of a parking garage. To be fair though, it’s the most architecturally stunning parking garage I think I’ve ever laid eyeballs on.

And don’t be fooled by its Lincoln address. I know most of the restaurants on that strip are touristy bile, but Juvia is truly fine dining at its finest, right down to the high-end crowd. Juvia isn’t just a looker though, this beauty has substance, easily living up to the price tag with surprisingly deft, unpretentious service and equally skilled, inventively crafted plates.

Being in a cocktail mood, we both opted for the Juvia lemonade, which was equal parts refreshing and inebriating. Our mood also seemed to be trained on small plates, so we tried quite a few starters, but no entrees.

First up was the only miss for me of the night, the salmon sashimi. Served a touch too cold and thus a touch too chewy. Should’ve been room temp and should’ve been much better than it was.

But wow was the make up sex good. The chocolate unagi was just as unique as it was delicious. And the local buratta was drop dead gorgeous. Quite yummy to boot, albeit a touch lacking in the salt department, but you can always add that yourself.

The short rib gyoza on the other hand, was lacking nothing. Wowza! This Ultimate is so good I almost want to eat the part of my brain that’s thinking about it right now.

For dessert, you’re bound to be swayed by the chocolate candy bars floating to the tables surrounding you, and sure it’s crazy rich, but it’s not as crazy amazing as it looks. In my not-so humble opinion, the tres leche is tres times better. In fact, it’s an Ultimate. Up there with the likes of Animal in LA.

Well done Juvia. You’re the best thing to happen to a parking garage since Seinfeld.

4 teeth

Yuca

501 Lincoln Rd • Miami Beach, FL 33139 • (305) 532-9822 • yuca.com

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Yuca is Yucko. And I find it egregious that a New York Magazine article actually recommend this tourist trap, deeming it great for people watching, or as I would more accurately describe it, rubber-necking, because it’s like a parade of fashion train wrecks marching by. So, for a minute let’s just indulge the entertainment value of the passersby and maybe that gets you to one knife, but once the novelty of watching cows strut past in fishnets and neon thongs you eventually turn your attention to the plate, and that’s when the seven car pile up really gets going.

For example, the habanero guacamole was overly pureed and under spicy, served with unsweetened plantain chips that tasted like balsa wood. Such a simple dish, yet they managed to fuck it up three times over.

Another simple dish, and tapas favorite, turned to trash were the bacon wrapped dates. So dry, the Sahara is suing for copyright infringement. If you want to try a nailed version of the same, go to Boqueria in New York.

Even the empanadas were emperfect. Once again, too dry and lacking any sort of complexity of flavor. In fact, the only thing we had that night worth chewing was the plantain crusted mahi mahi served with sweet plantain mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley. Yet again the fish was dry, but the other flavors kept it interesting enough to actually eat.

Then, once again it was back to shitsville as the chocolate tres leche with homemade chocolate ice cream hit the table. It was so bad we left more than half of it stranded on the plate. And the other half I wish I could’ve given to a homeless person on the way back to the hotel, but that would’ve been too cruel.

1 tooth

ABC Cocina

38 E 19th St. New York, NY 10003(212) 677-2233 abccocinanyc.com

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If you’ve ever been to ABC Kitchen then you’ve seen how great Jean-Georges is with décor. And I’m guessing he found it so nice he used it twice, Cocina is a dead ringer.

And speaking of the dead, the irony of Cocina is that it’s sitting atop the gravesite of another great tapas restaurant, Pipa. Not sure why it didn’t last, but my remorse dissipated after one bite of their guac with grapefruit salsa. Such a simple, brilliant twist to refresh a classic.

Another great spin on a tried and true was the beet salad with “smoky” goat. It gave layers of depth to the dish that made it seem as if I was trying it again for the first time.

But the dish that stole my corazón was the huevos rancheros. Easily the best I’ve ever had. Served in a skillet, sitting on a crisp tortilla bed. Nothing too inventive about it truthfully, so I’m guessing it was just a matter of quality ingredients and proportions.

The ham and cheese fritters are also worthy of your attention, described as “ooey-gooey,” as in “Oooo-weee are those friggin’ good!”

And while I didn’t actually try it, the fish sandwich got tons of praise form the other side of the table. That said, upon my return for dinner, I did try the the crispy fish tacos and holy contrasts Batman! The use of pickled cabbage is a beacon of brightness that balances out the fried fish, keeping it from feeling heavy. Just genius. And the habanero sauce they dress it with was so on point I didn’t need to add a drop extra, which is rare for me. Definitely adding this one to my Ultimates.

But Cocina is not perfecto. The much raved about short rib taco fell way short of the fishy glory that preceded it. And speaking of fish, the fluke ceviche was chewy and bland. Probably the worst dish we ordered and worst ceviche I’ve ever had. As for the octopus, it made my taste buds scoff, especially after having just had some killer pus at Mermaid Inn a few nights before. So the comparison did not bode well for Cocina.

Service was also a touch spotty during lunch. Not knowing when to clear dishes. Hostess tried to seat us inches from the front door with nothing between us and the frigid cold outside but a velvet curtain, even though we had a reservation. But for dinner we sat at the bar and our server/bartender couldn’t have been better. Partly due to his wonderful recommendation of that fish taco and also due to his suggestion of the blood orange margarita– deadly!

In the middle of the road, I would put the Red Hibiscus sangria, which was certainly good, packed with refreshing fruit, but unfortunately not quite as packed with awesome as the margarita.

And all four desserts also fell somewhere in the mids… The tres leche was solid, but I’ve most certainly had better. The flan was also pretty good, but it’s hard for me to get too excited about flan. I’m not the biggest fan. The vanilla fritters with Mexican chocolate was done well, but the flavors just didn’t wow. The best of the quatro being the rice pudding. It’s nothing incredible, but if you like rice pudding (which I do), it is done very well.

And well done is the main takeaway at Cocina. The hits definitely outweigh the misses enough that I feel obliged to round up to four knives.

4 teeth