Jun 5, 2010

Esquina: A New Concept in Mexican Restaurants

Restaurant: Esquina
Location: 708 Mass St., Lawrence, KS
Food: Fun, authentic-inspired quick Mexican 
Service: Unconventional order, pay, sit, be served. Awful, but friendly.
Price: Nice restaurant fare for Chipotle prices
Rating: two napkins

Traveling to Lawrence yesterday specifically for dinner at Esquina, I came to an incredible realization: Lawrence is, impossibly, an even cooler town now than when I was a student there. The Mass St. area alone has gained several great-sounding restaurants like the aforementioned, Genovese (La Parilla and Zen Zero family), Local Burger, Angler's Seafood and more.  Point is: if things go according to plan, I'll have several more reviews from Lawrence to add to Napkins soon. So stay tuned for those.

To the task at hand (this review), I keep repeating three words over and over in my mind, which aptly describe our experience at Esquina, meant in the most flattering and endearing way possible: Chipotle on steroids. That said, know that I have a mild obsession with Chipotle, whose high quality ingredients and fantastic-for-quick-service-restaurant preparation methods have me coming back almost every weekend. So this truly is meant as a compliment, not degradation.

The reasons for the comparison are twofold. The first is its funky vibe and service model. Oberving the decor, it's clear the owners wanted to give Esquina a unique, memorable feel and they accomplished this incredibly well. Occupying what used to be the old Round Corner Drugstore space on the southwest corner of 8th and Mass, the decor is anything but sterile, yet equally capable of instilling vitality in its visitors as that of its preceding business. From the industrial metallic sign above the funky green front door, to the panoramic glass windows exposing the dining room to passers by, the exposed stone walls and giant luminous fixtures hanging above the tables... it's flat-out cool.

Walking in, visitors run smack-dab into the seats at the bar, and what a fun bar for eating and partaking of libations it is! Greeters will read your expression and quickly judge whether you need to be told how ordering works or stay out of your way so you can do your thing. To order, proceed past them across the back of the space, down a chute to the counter above which hang the vibrantly colorful chalkboard menus and upon which sits a bucket full of ice and icy cold Mexican beers. (Looking at that bucket, it was all I could do to restrain myself from snagging a can of tecate and chugging it down right then and there, purposely obtaining a severe brain freeze. Its refreshing appearance was tantalizing!) Customers are to pay a cashier directly after ordering (like at Chipotle), but then take a number to their seat of choice and wait to be served.

The second similarity to Chipotle is Esquina's apparent food philosophy: offer authentic Mexican dishes (not Tex Mex), prepared in traditional ways, but done so super-quick. No, it's not Chipotle quick, of course, but a little more expedient than your normal Mexican place with the traditional sit-and-be-served model. This entire method creates a certain kinetic energy in the restaurant that can be felt in its boisterousness, the comfort exuded by all the customers and a tangible happiness or friendliness that hangs in the air. This feeling could never be achieved in a white tablecloth fine dining establishment. You walk in, it's loud, you order and pay, seat yourself, next thing you know your food is there, you eat and talk as long as you want, then pick up and leave. The experience can be whatever you want it to be - laugh and linger or eat and jet.

The prices are quite reasonable, too, I should mention. Our huge, filling order of chips and guac (chips and salsa, too, which are free all summer), two entrees, rice and beans, a glass of Malbec and a margarita totaled $35.99 all said and done. Five to 10 dollars less than what we'd have paid at a typical sit down Mexican place in KC with the same order. And the food did not disappoint, either.

The salsa was quite unique and absolutely delicious. It was a dark orange-red color and had a deep of char flavor from its well-roasted chilies. Great depth. The guacamole was the only pitfall of the night, which tasted like the kind you get in a plastic bag from Costco or the grocery store. It also reminded me of how my guac tastes after sitting in the fridge overnight. So perhaps it had been hanging around long enough that it oxidized and got a little muddy. The guac also lacked cilantro and I'd bet that if it had any acid, it was lemon, not lime (a fatal flaw according to my philosophy on guacamole). So I was largely dissatisfied with the guacamole, but things looked up from that point on.

Elizabeth ordered a taco basket - three tacos from their list of seven: steak, chicken, pork, corn, fish, tofu and corn. Her picks were steak, pork and potato. All were delicious. The steak was immaculately cooked, medium rare and soft as could be. My problem with steak in tacos is often that it's too chewy. This stuff melted in our mouths. It came topped with crunchy shredded cabbage and a delicious salsa verde which had more of a cooling effect than a spicy one. The pork was almost, but not quite, too tender, having been braised for what tasted like hours. Its pineapple (mango, too, maybe?) salsa with tomato and red onion was an interesting combination. Pineapple is not a collaborative flavor - it always shines through and seems unaffected by other ingredients - but it added a nice acidic component against the luscious pork and was a welcomed topping.

The potato taco was unlike anything I would have expected. I had pictured cubes of diced potato with lots of seasoning on them, like breakfast potatoes, almost. No. This taco was filled with creamy mashed potatoes(!), seasoned, mixed with what I think were black beans that gave the potatoes their dark color, and kernels of corn. How or why this taco worked as well as it did is inexplicable. It hearkened to the sensation of eating a bite from the dregs of my Thanksgiving plates, with several different components incorporated into a big bite of mashed potatoes. This was my first experience with what I'll call Mexican comfort food.

All of the tacos were large, came served in wonderfully soft corn tortillas, topped with cabbage and at least one other flavor/texture component that made them the satisfying bite one hopes for in a good taco. We loved them. They were quite filling, too, rendering Elizabeth's nicely spiced, huge bowl of black beans and rice entirely superfluous.

Also falling into the comfort food realm was my heaping plate of Chilaquiles, aptly described on the menu board as tortilla casserole with tomato chipotle sauce, a fried egg and cheese. This really was a huge plate of chopped  up corn tortilla fragments, soft and covered in the red sauce, topped off with a nicely fried egg and a sprinkle of queso fresco crumbles. It was scary how quickly I was able to maneuver heaping forkfuls of the tortillas into my gaping mouth and swallow them down my gullet, pausing only briefly for a sip of wine or to bead sweat off my brow (combo of spice and warm night). The egg's yolk had broken and further saturated the tortilla under it, which tastes way better than it sounds. Given my druthers, I'd have more cheese added as its ratio seemed scant, but what bites did include the cheese were that much more enjoyable.

I'd synopsize chilaquiles by describing them as nachos meet a hot brown, but less saucy and less meaty. They were good and I'd have them again, but not before I try everything else on the menu, which all sounds superb.

A funny, and rare-for-Napkins, note on service: the girl at the register was apparently new - either high school or early in her college days. And apparently she didn't understand how things work at Esquina yet. We were first tipped off when I had to repeat my order of "a glass of the malbec" five times before she turned to a coworker and asked for help as if I was speaking a different language. Her compatriot understood immediately, as would be expected, and when she repeated "malbec" to the young'un, further described it as "the house red" which finally made the light bulb go on.

Perhaps flustered by the oddity of that altercation, she then proceeded to look at us silently with eyebrows raised as if to convey "anything else?" We asked whether we needed to pay before being seated (after all, there was a cash register between she and us), but she said we simply should take our number, choose a seat and the server would come to us. Off we went. It wasn't until we were ready to leave and asked one of the servers nearby whether we were to pay her or go back up to the counter that we collectively understood we had been given bad instructions and ought to have paid immediately after ordering to the confused girl behind the counter.

We were thanked profusely by both the server and the more experienced cashier who took our money for our honesty. We wondered, though, how many Esquina customers took advantage of the free Friday night meals being dolled out by the new employee, though, and hoped it hadn't been many.

If I lived in Lawrence, given Esquina's moderate prices, delicious Mexican fare, and my propensity for craving moderately priced, delicious Mexican fare, I can safely assumed I'd eat there weekly. And given the look of some of the other plates of food we saw on the tables of our fellow customers, I can't wait to go back again (add it to the list).

With slightly better seasoned (some things were a little bland) dishes, an improvement in the guacamole and a better experience with service, I might consider Esquina for a third napkin. Its service model and the subsequent atmosphere it creates in the restaurant is truly noteworthy. Based on our first experience, though, I confidently bestow Esquina with two napkins and highly recommend it to anyone... except "Dave," the hopeless sap on Urbanspoon who says "Horrible food and concept" and berates Esquina for only having Mexican beers (he's looking for Sapporo or something?), hurting his stomach being greasy and spicy (welcome to Mexican food, dope), being too confusing in its layout (I guess he got lost in the one-room, open layout restaurant?), being too expensive (his sack of change wasn't sufficient to cover his bill?), and having bad guacamole (okay, he's right on one account). Dave, go across the street to Noodles & Co. and leave the good food for the rest of us.

Rating: two napkins

Esquina on Urbanspoon


Robert said...

Esquina is just a couple of blocks from my office -- each and every afternoon I have to fight the urge to go and get a taco snack. Can't say enough good things about the fish tacos with fried plantain on top.

Anonymous said...

You sound like a real jerk. "hopeless sap"? I take you think you're the only one entitled to give an opinion.

Foodie32 said...

Not at all, DAVE. Your opinion is completely valid. I just happen to disagree with it completely.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Esquina was an epic failure! Closed.

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