South Florida must seem like paradise to restaurants with expansion in mind. We have rich residents, tourists who'd rather let somebody else handle the spatula, and cheap retail space, thanks to our enduring love affair with the strip mall. You can imagine some poor schmuck who's slogged through decades of winters in New Jersey running his little sandwich joint, gazing longingly at pictures of palm trees and sunbathers on Lauderdale Beach — saying to himself, Yeah, I really oughta open up a second branch down there.
There's just one problem with that kind of thinking: Everybody else is thinking it too. Count the 40-plus restaurants that opened in Palm Beach County in 2008 and most were either chains (Zed 451, Kona Grill, McCormick & Schmick's, Max & Erma's), celebrity showcases (Todd English, Morimoto, Carlos Santana), or new businesses from successful, established restaurateurs here or out-of-state (Clematis Social, Lobster House, Thai Joe). But franchises, chains, and second acts are no more failure-proof than first-time independents. And when a giant falls, it makes a bigger thud: Witness the implosions of Rosa Mexicano, Bucky's BBQ, Nick's Fishmarket, and many others that left gaping holes in our landscape last year.
Into this pockmarked battlefield, two new restaurants frog-stepped in 2008, hoping to win our jaded hearts and overstimulated appetites with South of the Border flavors. They include: Cottonwood Restaurant & Cafe, the second location of a Boston favorite; and Las Gaoneras, a chain with 17 locations in Mexico and a business plan to conquer El Norte.
Cottonwood has 20 years under its belt as a staple of Boston's Back Bay. Its website trumpets kudos from the New York Times, Citysearch, Best of Boston, Travel and Leisure, and the Washington Post — in part because it was the city's first Southwestern/Tex-Mex restaurant, and Beantown must've been way ready in the 1980s to have its legumes refried as well as baked. But two decades later, Tex-Mex and Mex-Mex restaurants are as common as dirt on a dude ranch. Anybody hoping to rise to the top in South Florida is going to have to beat what we've already got, places like Canyon Southwest Café, Tijuana Flats, T-Mex, and Zona Fresca. There are also taco trucks and classic shacks like Tacos al Carbon and Doña Raquel. Talk about jumping into the fray.
Only half the tables at Cottonwood were occupied on a Thursday night at dinner hour, and the place smelled of desperation. A scary singles meet-up of helmet-haired ladies and doddering gents had gathered the night we dined. Cottonwood owner Craig Gillaspie took a big risk opening in Boca Raton. The Northerners who winter here are ultrapicky and notably savvy about food. This crowd is probably glad to find Cottonwood's walls uncluttered by sombreros and cactus murals. But apart from an attractive bar and an outdoor patio, the muted beiges and industrial carpeting are probably too generic, sterile, and brightly lit for an audience routinely bedazzled by multimillion-dollar interiors — and anyway, Moquila, just down the road, long ago cornered the market on tequila lists and margaritas.
A disinterested 20-something waitress had the technicalities down, but her flat affect made me wonder how management had failed to inspire her — maybe she just knew what was coming. Appetizer specialties seemed inventive and potentially yummy, including cowboy potstickers (chicken dumplings with chili dip, $6), snakebites (fried jalapeños stuffed with cheese and shrimp, $7), and a Prairie Piñon Relleno (Anaheim chili filled with goat cheese and other goodies, $8). So did entrées, like a grilled steak enchilada ($21) and the flame-grilled barbacoa platter with chicken and marinated shrimp ($19). But when the plates started arriving, the smell of desperation got even stronger.
The thing about Tex-Mex is that this food's an indulgence. If I'm going to eat cheese, fried stuff, meat, salt, and corn, it better damned well taste good — otherwise, it's just a fast lane to unnecessary obesity. Our appetizers were probably the least appetizing Tex-Mex plates I've ever met: The snakebites were pathetic. How you suck the taste and aroma out of a jalapeño pepper filled with jack cheese and topped with a fried shrimp boggles me — this morsel ought to practically explode your head. Supposedly the whole concoction is rolled in corn meal and deep fried, but the dry, dull shrimp tasted suspiciously prebreaded and frozen. Somebody had defanged that poor snake.
If anything, the Prairie Piñon Relleno was visually worse: a long, glistening, brown cylinder plopped on a white plate like a specimen. I thought some line cook was having a huge laugh back there. I mean, you can't miss the resemblance. Intrepid critic that I am, I took a bite anyway and discovered a filling of greasy, tasteless cheese.
Not surprisingly, my chicken and shrimp "barbacoa" didn't raise the bar. Shrimp: pre-frozen, moistureless pasteboard alongside a skinless grilled chicken breast brushed with sweet sauce. Nor did my partner's droopy, drippy steak enchilada with its mess of puréed avocado inspire us to mosey on into dessert territory. Check, please!
We frankly didn't hope for much better from our foray into the new Las Gaoneras situated in a depressed Boynton Beach strip mall. But once I'd quit bitching about the florescent lighting and bland "fast casual" décor and took a look at the wine list, I was three-quarters won over. I sure hadn't expected this sassy lineup of Latin wines — Tempranillo and a Rioja Crianza from Spain, Malbec from Argentina. At $6 or $7 a glass, I could sit here and drink all night, never mind the food.
Thick, deliciously oily tortilla chips arrived hot from the fryer with one green and one red salsa in a pair of molcajetes, further eroding the foodphobia we'd developed at Cottonwood. Although both salsas were a mite bland, these fried tortilla chips were as good as the ones at Tacos al Carbon in Lake Worth, my infallible Mex litmus test.
The menu's prices were another indicator of authenticity. Three "La Mexico" tacos stuffed with sirloin rang up at $10.99. Appetizers (quesa fundido with mushrooms, cheese quesadillas) and soups (tortilla, jugo de carne) ranged from $3.99 to $6.99. There were grilled bulb onions and sautéed Serrano peppers as "extras" ($2.50, $1.99), and they even had tripe as an option to stuff into the tacos — if anything signifies real Mexican food, it's tripe. At those prices, I could sit here and eat all night too.
Which we more or less did. Vegetarian warning: The menu is decidedly beefcentric. The Las Gaoneras specialty platter ($10.99) is a thin, marinated, and grilled flank steak served alongside a covered dish of warm corn tortillas. You can doctor these as you please — pinching from the little dishes of cilantro and onions or slathering on some spoonfuls of salsa or fantastic and rich refried beans ($1.99) and rice ($2.50). The La Mexico tacos combine slices of tenderloin with crunchy bits of chicharrónes (pork cracklings) for texture and extra fat, rolled into chewy corn tortillas.
We eavesdropped on other tables over our cold, creamy dessert flan ($2.99), and they were cooing and ahhing. The place wasn't even half full, but that half was one happy bunch of plump, satisfied Norte Americanos, basking in the too-bright light, taking pleasure in the spotlessly clean tile and disinfected tabletops as they ventured comfortably into Mexi-land. We decided Las Gaoneras, named after a fancy bullfighting move, was like that red matador's cape — designed to fatally distract us lumbering, snorting Americans into the flavors and textures of a real cuisine. By the time we realize what's happened, it's too late. ¡Olé!