Too proverbial a message? Allow me to illustrate. I was witness to an extremely unpleasant scene on a recent Friday evening at a small, perhaps two-month-old South American eatery called Los Andes in Pompano Beach. While not a dive, the restaurant is appointed with the barest minimum. Clearly this is not a bastion of fine dining but a place to grab some no-frills, authentic fare.
Party A, which was in the restaurant first, consisted of three small children and four adults. Party B had five adults, one of whom was a restaurant critic reviewing Los Andes. How do I know this? Because he was bragging so loudly about his job and other restaurants he had reviewed -- some of which, it seems, he had called before he visited to find out when they could best accommodate him.
Admittedly Party A was having difficulty managing the kids, who were excited and probably hungry. But that doesn't excuse the restaurant critic's behavior. He literally growled, and then yelled at Party A: "Can't you control those kids?"
I believe Party A thought he was joking -- after all, unlike many American restaurants, Latin and other ethnic eateries often don't have hang-ups about kids supping with parents, even when the children prove to be rambunctious. Plus it was early, a dinner hour more appropriate for families than critics. They flippantly replied, "Probably not," which incensed the critic. He unleashed a few more vitriolic statements concerning Party A's children, astonishing not only Party A but the Los Andes staff, who looked acutely embarrassed and rushed to apologize to Party A on behalf of the ill-mannered restaurant critic.
Still, Party A performed what I consider the appropriate action. They requested that their appetizers be packed to go, and while one couple waited for the food to be ready, the other pair took the three unfed children and left. This wasn't good enough for Party B. When one of them observed, "Look, that party's taking their food to go," the restaurant critic said, loudly enough for Party A to hear, "Good. There's such a thing as etiquette."
Yes, there is. Party A practiced it; Party B did not. Party A had the decency to remove the children and exit the restaurant as gracefully as possible. Party B should at least have waited until they were gone to gossip about them.
As a mother I'm naturally attuned to these kinds of situations; I felt bad for all involved. But as a restaurant reviewer, I'm appalled by my colleague's behavior. A critic should observe and evaluate a restaurant, yes. He should state his opinion in his published article. He should not, under any circumstance, run other patrons out of the eatery, costing said restaurant (which happens to offer some very good empanadas, by the way) its business. Nor should he call such attention to himself. By making everyone in the restaurant uncomfortable -- staff and other patrons included -- he created an artificial environment where people felt they needed to tiptoe around him. And so his conclusions were skewed.
But my confrere's poor professional attitude did spur me to think over my own policies. And sure enough, an ethical dilemma arose the very next evening at La Hacienda de Angel, a 101-seat Mexican restaurant that serves outstanding regional fare in truly dumpy surroundings. When the manager brought over the flan and bread pudding we'd ordered for dessert, he magnanimously announced, "It's on the house." Another unwritten rule for critics is: Accept no freebies. So what should I have done? Insisted on paying for the sweets? Turned them down altogether?
In the end I simply thanked the manager, taking into consideration his motives: The place had been open for a short two months; we were the only party in the house; he wanted to ensure we'd come back. He had no way of knowing I was reviewing the eatery, since I dine anonymously. What's more I had no qualm about being honest afterward (while the cinnamon-scented bread pudding was light and fluffy, the flan was too jellied). The desserts were manager Sebastian Velazquez's way of thanking us for being good patrons. When he asked us to tell our friends about the place, he didn't know I'd be relaying the info to thousands.
I must admit that the interior of this strip-mall eatery isn't too attractive. It has two distinct and separate halves, as if someone had taken a Dunkin Donuts and a Subway shop and made them into one restaurant. As a result, the booths on one side of the dining room are covered in tan leatherette à la the Brady Bunch era, while those on the other side wear lime-hued cloth. Tiffany-style light fixtures (read: cheap imitations) cast a dim presence, and a television set in the corner broadcasts Spanish game shows. A Mexican flag is displayed in one storefront window, an American flag is featured in another, and signs declare the place serves "fine Mexican and American" food. A banner promises $1.50 margaritas.
But despite the peculiar décor, chef-proprietor Angel Veliz's dishes are enticing enough to succeed on their own merits, flavored as they are with nuances from his home region of Puebla, Mexico. While the menu itself is also a little confusing, broken down into categories such as "hacienda tipics," "Mexican entrées," "Spanish favorites," and "house entrées," the truth is that no matter what you order, the dish will have either Mexican origins or Mexican flair. Even the most American of soups, New England clam chowder, was given a Latino boost by the addition of roasted corn and shredded corn tortillas. Chunky with potatoes, celery, and tender clams, the homemade chowder was superior to versions found in local fish houses.
Indeed the seafood was so ultrafresh that I must commend the restaurant. Velazquez acknowledged that business has been slow thus far, especially at dinner. Usually in a situation like that, the seafood is days old; no one bothers to restock. But we had no quibble about the shrimp taquitos, two corn tortilla flutes stuffed with sautéed onions, mozzarella cheese, and chunks of jumbo shrimp. Topped with a green chili sauce, the intricately spiced taquitos were an excellent example of Veliz's mastery over his cuisine. Camarones picantes was another wonderful main course, excelling in both quality and preparation. The sautéed shrimp had been simmered in an enchilado sauce -- tomato, onion, and green serrano chiles -- then ladled over perfectly cooked yellow rice. And crab enchiladas, a special that evening, were two tortillas rolled around real crab meat -- not the fake stuff you find in so many Mexican restaurants around town -- as well as sautéed onions and peppers and mozzarella cheese. Accompanied by refried beans and yellow rice, the enchiladas were priced at an almost ridiculous $8.95, which made us enjoy them even more.
If you're looking for typical Tex-Mex fare, then you probably won't want to indulge in the carnitas de puerco, or medallions of pork, which had been topped with shredded sweet onions and a pleasantly aromatic garlic-lime sauce. Under the heading of Spanish favorites, this dish featured black beans as opposed to refried pinto beans and was partnered by fried sweet plantains. In short the dish was sophisticated enough to pass muster at a much more upscale place.
But Tex-Mex sticklers need not fret. La Hacienda de Angel offers favorites like chicken nachos, garnished with some of the best guacamole I've had in recent memory, and beef burritos, which aren't stuffed so much as they are composed of cubes of steak and grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms, and mozzarella cheese. Even vegetarians can dine comfortably here, since beans are stewed with lots of cumin but no pork fat.
In fact I'd warrant that no one sups at La Hacienda de Angel in discomfort (unless they're allergic to lime green), simply because the staff is so nice and eager. Unruly fellow diners, be they kids or restaurant critics, are about the only variables that could mar a very pleasant dining experience. Kudos to La Hacienda, and to Los Andes as well, for the sincere efforts both are making to win repeat customers.