I'm not going to jump to conclusions. But I will apply questionable lessons learned to a recent experience at No Way Jose!, a two-year-old Tex-Mex eatery in Boca Raton. Having received French fries with his order of St. Louis ribs, my husband requested ketchup. Not such an unusual experience -- we Americans love the stuff so much we consider it a basic food group along with chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. But nobody likes it like this: sickly orange, reeking of vinegar and rotten eggs, and projectile in nature.
As soon as my unsuspecting spouse twisted off the cap, the condiment exploded from the bottle, splattering his gray silk shirt and cream-colored pants, the table, and even the wall behind him with foul-smelling, tangerine-hued abstract artwork. Clearly, the ketchup had gone bad, most likely with botulism or some similar bacteria that produce gas as a byproduct when they multiply. In a bottle, this produces a volatile effect. In cans, the sides bulge out, which is why your mom tells you never to eat anything from damaged tin.
I've suffered from salmonella and the like many times, so I'm especially sensitive to foodstuffs that might make me sick, and I refuse even to taste them. Frankly, I'd rather inject the substance into my wrinkles -- botulism paralyzes muscles and can prevent brow-crinkling -- than ingest it. Other diners might think perhaps the ketchup had been overheated or shaken too vigorously. An elderly or very young customer or anyone with a poorly developed immune system could become seriously ill from this sort of thing.
There are other implications. Who knows how many bottles of ketchup were tainted? And what about cross-contamination, the transference of the bacteria from a dishtowel or cutting board to another food item? And based on such observations, how can you expect the rest of the comestibles in such a place to have been stored appropriately?
Then there's the question of how restaurant personnel respond to such a problem. As the authors of The Waiting Game, the classic guide for servers, note, "Safe food handling and illness prevention are crucial areas of concern for the restaurant industry, and all restaurant employees should be trained in safe food handling and be aware of any possible food-safety violations." In the case of No Way Jose!, we were displeased with the outcome. Although the server rushed a washcloth and soda water over to help remove the stains from my husband's clothing, neither he nor the manager understood why we were worried about the ketchup. After I explained the danger, the manager asked me bluntly, "Well, what do you want me to do?"
For starters, I wanted him to throw out all the ketchup on the premises. Done, he assured me. (Somehow, I didn't feel convinced.) Second, I wanted him to pay for the dry-cleaning bill. (But, he confided, he was leaving the establishment in two weeks.) Third, I wanted him to take two entrées off the check. (He should have comped the whole bill, as it was pretty apparent that we had lost our appetites and wouldn't be risking our health by continuing to eat.)
Detonating condiments aside, I found little to recommend No Way Jose! An extremely limited menu -- about six appetizer options and a dozen main plates, many with recurring "fajita" themes -- contradicts a Sun-Sentinel food review on the wall from a mere two years ago that cites more intriguing, Cajun-oriented dishes such as coconut shrimp, shrimp-and-crab gumbo, yellowtail étouffé, and bread pudding with blueberry sauce. Interestingly, a second Sun-Sentinel write-up, posted a few weeks ago, doesn't mention the major menu revision. Indeed, the daily paper awards the place two and a half stars even though it concludes that "No Way Jose! is being a little too cautious when it comes to flavor." Apparently, the critic was impressed by "the service, [which] is efficient and friendly. They know how to keep the complimentary chips and salsa coming."
Although our waiter was indeed pleasant and personable, our table did not exactly overflow with tortilla chips and salsa. In fact, the food runner was rude, placing heated plates that he curtly warned us not to touch in front of the wrong person and then neglecting to move them. The fellow heaved exasperated sighs when we made outrageous requests for, say, a fork or -- gasp! -- more salsa. The server later acknowledged the runner had an attitude, commenting regretfully, "He's always like that." Yeah? So why is he still employed?
The lack of management shows up in other areas. From the outside, the restaurant appears bright and shiny, with the appeal of a chain restaurant -- neither exotic nor threatening. Inside, it's a different picture: dingy, smoky, bar-dominated rooms with shabby wooden booths and pool tables. On a Saturday night, only about a half dozen parties seemed to be partaking, though the server assured us the eatery had been packed with about 500 customers the night before. No doubt the modest prices of the quesadillas and the happy-hour beer specials are inviting to the local Florida Atlantic University crowd.
But not even the most undiscerning college student can believe the food here is worth further exploration. Even Buffalo wings tasted wrong, the sauce stranded somewhere between traditional cayenne-Tabasco flavors and sweetened barbecue concoctions. The quality of meat on the fajita nachos was low, a toughness echoed in a mediocre-but-enormous beef burrito. We fared better with the "arrachera steak." The beef, a flank steak, was also chewy, but appropriately so, and helped along by a garlic marinade.
Not much could rescue the St. Louis ribs that escaped the ketchup debacle. The dish consisted of bones, fat, and gristle, nary a tender nibble in sight. And the grilled, ten-ounce "fresh dolphin Key West" was gray and tasted far older than the steak, which the menu notes is "corn grain-fed and aged to perfection." Billed flavorings of lemon pepper, garlic, butter, and white wine were conspicuously absent. I would have concentrated on filling my stomach with the yellow rice that accompanies all entrées, but the grains were so tacky and hard, I would have had better luck throwing them at a Hugh Hefner bride.
As for dessert, No Way Jose! Indeed, I'd rather have a side of ketchup, garnished with a dusting of cumin.