Restaurant Reviews

In the Zona

One of the primary objections to the existence of food critics is that no two critics operate alike. Some review anonymously; others do not. Some accept freebies; others do not. Some visit a restaurant numerous times; others do not. When the range of practice varies so widely, restaurateurs want to know, how can anyone's opinion be taken as gospel?

Now, the critics of the critics can rest easy on at least one score. The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) has, for the first time, issued an industry standard for dining reviewers. These standards are merely suggestions, not hard-and-fast rules, but they are meant to provide a base to which all neogastronomes can adhere.

The real question, however, is whether so-called experienced critics already follow these general rules -- or if we are willing to change our ways in accordance with the preconceived code.

For instance, the AFJ states that all reviews should be conducted anonymously, with reservations made under pseudonyms, no notebooks on the table, paid for by the employer rather than by the restaurant. This ensures that the critic receives the same kind of treatment "ordinary patrons" do.

I hereby understand and agree.

In addition, critics should wait about four weeks before visiting new restaurants, in order to give said eatery time to adjust to supply and demand.

I hereby understand and agree.

And, of course, two visits to a restaurant are recommended. Three are better. Plus a critic should order at least one dish repeatedly to judge whether or not the eatery operates consistently.

I hereby understand. But aside from the constraints put on such a practice by ever-reducing budgets, which the AFJ did not take into account, I don't necessarily agree.

Yes, I believe that more than one visit is most times warranted, and that for, say, a celebrated restaurant that hasn't lived up to expectations, a repeat trip is mandatory. But I actually find this mandate diametrically opposed to earlier ones. How can one make numerous visits in a short period of time without attracting undue attention and therefore being recognized, if not as a critic or someone who has a vested interest in the place, then as a regular? And why, if we critics are supposed to act as "ordinary patrons," would we give a new restaurant more than one shot to impress us enough to want to come in for another meal?

Let me put it another way. If you go to -- just an example -- a steak house, experience subpar, overcooked meat and greasy side dishes, pay out some big bucks for mediocre wine and shoddy service, and leave dissatisfied, would you go back?

You get the point, so let me give you the reverse angle now. Here is the kind of restaurant where I will go back twice, thrice, ad nauseam. The kind where the fare is not just high in quality but honestly conceived and thoughtfully prepared. The kind where price points and service appropriately reflect the restaurant's image. The kind, in short, where a meal is so enjoyable that I'm drawn back on my own time to spend my own money.

The type of joint like Zona Fresca.

Located on North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Zona Fresca is hardly an upmarket establishment. You order at the counter, pump yourself full of caffeine via the do-it-yourself soft-drink machine, and perch at bar tables the height of your average female gymnast. (The restaurant offers highchairs, but unless you plan on sitting outside at the normal-height patio tables, the babies will have no place to mash their Cheerios.) You explain to the employee behind the register that white zinfandel is not white wine, at which point he takes back the pink wine and hands you a different miniature screw-top bottle, so you give up and order a bottle of Negra Modelo or crisp Bohemia lager instead. You drink the beer out of the bottle, eat with plastic utensils, scraping the cilantro-spiked rice off Styrofoam plates and digging the homemade avocado-tomatillo salsa out of little plastic cups. And you enjoy every single, healthful, homemade bite.

That's because the Mexican fare here at the "Fresh Zone" is made Baja-style, which means Cal-Mex rather than Tex-Mex. In other words, while dishes like guacamole remain fattening, other recipes have been slimmed down. Zona Fresca's fried tortilla chips, for example, are flash-cooked daily in cholesterol-free canola oil and have a clean, wholesome flavor. The refried pinto beans have also been adjusted to cut down on the ingredients that beef you up. Both the pintos and the black beans are stewed without lard -- though the black beans actually could have used some salty pork cholesterol to cut the blithe blandness of the beans. But the pintos, comprising whole as well as mashed beans, were excellently and appropriately seasoned, so perhaps the black version is still a work in progress.

Tacos, too, aren't what you might expect if your Mexican experience lies in the generic hands of Taco Hell and other chain eateries around South Florida. Instead of a deep-fried corn tortilla stuffed with greasy ground beef and loaded with shredded cheese and Zantac-enabling taco sauce, the corn tortillas at Zona Fresca are not fried to the point where they could slice your tongue open when you bite into them. Rather they are simply warmed, lined with an onion-cilantro mix, and filled up with hand-trimmed, char-grilled chicken or skirt steak. We grabbed one of each on the two-taco combination plate, which includes a hefty serving of rice, beans, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage salad, and grilled onions. For $4.75 you simply can't get more reasonably priced eats than this.

The Baja fish tacos we sampled one evening were not only the best item in the place; they were better than any of the roadside fish tacos I've consumed in Baja. The mild, flaky fish had been dipped in a beer batter, then quickly tossed in bubbling canola oil. Instead of the ubiquitous lettuce, a marinated cabbage salad had been added to the taco, along with a tangy sour-cream dressing that didn't obscure the slightly lime-enhanced flavor of the fish.

The tacos themselves aren't huge, but they're just about the only dishes that leave you craving more. Items like the taquitos, three tubular tortillas stuffed with seasoned chicken or steak and then quickly deep-fried, were a complete -- and completely grease-free -- meal, accompanied by generous sides of beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. The shrimp burrito was even heartier, if that's possible, given the lightness of the shrimp themselves, marinated in lime juice and speed-grilled. The wrap had been laden with beans (your choice of black or pinto), cabbage, pico de gallo, just a touch of Jack cheese, and creamy dressing. The combination, served in a basket alongside a healthy pile of chips, was beyond satisfying.

The last burrito on the list is called the "siesta maker," which might be a good idea if you've engaged in manual labor all morning but probably isn't such a swift move if you're returning to a desk. Even a simple plate of nachos, loaded up with beans, guacamole, melted Jack and cheddar cheeses, sour cream, and pico de gallo, was capable of feeding four of us. After overdoing it on nachos, tacos, and Mexican beer, the flan, just about the only sweet available, hardly seems like an option.

The slogan at Zona Fresca is "not your everyday Mexican food [but] Mexican food you can eat every day." When it comes to this six-week-old eatery, the folks at the Association of Food Journalists should be happy to hear that critics and "ordinary patrons" alike are likely to abide by even the most idiomatic of rules: Two visits are recommended. Three are better. And while we're at it, we'll order the fish tacos every darn time.