May 30, 2011

Burrito Joe's Moves In on 39th

Restaurant: Burrito Joe's
Food: Burrito plates, mostly
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Casual
Price: Cheap eats!
Rating: two napkins

A Chinese restaurant called Szechuan used to inhabit the corner spot at 1403 W. 39th, across from Donna’s Dress Shop. But it’s gone now. I know. I, too, am shocked.

The new lessee is KC restaurant veteran Jose Mendoza Jr., whose former establishments include Mendoza’s Deli and Elijios Cantina. The new place: a Mexican concept called Burrito Joe’s. The Chipotle just west of Burrito Joe’s on 39th is a staple of my weekend lunches and the idea of local competition immediately drew my interest. And truthfully, new restaurants opening up in historically unsuccessful locations like the former Szechuan garner my instinctual gawking, like driving by a bad traffic accident. I giggle shamelessly when I see these predictably empty dining rooms with staff perched on bar stools watching Sportscenter, trying to pass the time. But it’ sad. I really shouldn’t.

Burrito Joe’s doesn’t look like much from the outside, at least not yet. I like the corner-facing doorway and its big gas lamps (though right now they’re shrouded by a nasty maroon awning) but it could definitely use some kind of sprucing up for added curb appeal. On the inside, I found it to be more cozy than Szechuan had been (yes, I did eat at Szechuan, but it was so unremarkable and pathetically void of business, I knew it just wasn’t going to make it and felt it would be kicking a man while he was down to give it a one napkin review in that state; it wasn’t too bad, though).

There’s a fresh coat of paint on the walls—white and red—and new carpeting throughout. While a big U-shaped wooden bar eats up the center of the floor, currently unused as their liquor license is still a few weeks away, I noticed the space is larger than I’d thought previously. On the East side there are several booths and tables, a few small tables lining the north wall by the big windows, more tables and booths on the West side and then, through a curtain, an unused secondary dining area.

Overall, the space isn’t impressive, but it’s not offensive, either. Given the relatively simple and fun concept it espouses, though, a small menu basically focused on big burrito plates, I couldn’t help comparing it to Chipotle and thinking Burrito Joe’s needed to step up the liveliness a bit. After eating the food, though, I backed off this notion.

Yes, the menu is comparable to Chipotle. They serve burritos with a few obligatory alternative entrees for those who refuse to conform. But no, they’re not going to be a faceless corporate quick service restaurant. Although an in-n-out style of service is apparently in the works, the vibe conveyed at Burrito Joe’s through their food and even their service is one more along the lines of an informal Mexican family meal. And not a fancy, massive Sunday afternoon family feast, but something on a smaller, more intimate scale. It’s almost like the feeling of being a kid at home, going into the kitchen at lunch time and your mom (assume your mom is Mexican) happily asks, “What would you like for lunch? I can make up a burrito for you!” Friendly, casual, informal, and they’ve got just the right mix of ingredients to pull together exactly what your empty stomach needs.

Burrito Joe’s serves breakfast, so I’ll be returning sometime to review that, but on our trip it was lunchtime. I was pleased to be served free chips and salsa to start—a bonus not offered at Chipotle—which were decent but not revelatory. The salsa seemed fresh enough, but for whatever reason lacked flavor. It reminded me of the salsa at Manny’s, but better. Hot and mild are both provided.

We tried two different burritos, two different ways: first, one of their three vegetarian burritos, called The Happy Veggie Burrito. Going vegetarian is a good way to keep the calories in check when eating Mexican food, which can be awfully taxing but I refuse to cut out of my diet, so I was excited to see they hadn’t skipped this important option. It hit the spot, too, filled with deliciously grilled veggies like peppers and onions, either squash or zucchini, and black beans. Inside, too, there was a sauce to bind the ingredients a little.

I’ve gotta pause and mention the tortilla in specific, though. It stole the show. At first glance, these tortillas almost garner a double take as they’re slightly yellow in color and thicker than what one normally finds in a tortilla. My inquiry to our server, however, yielded the fantastic news that the Mendoza’s grandmother (Abuelita) makes the tortillas herself! A homemade tortillas is a thing of beauty, like homemade bread. The mass-produced stuff is normally a fine product and tastes fine, too, but the homemade tortilla just reeks of care, comfort and love. It’s the je ne sais quoi (how do you say that in Spanish?) of Mexican cooking. Almost crepe-like in appearance and texture, but tasting more of flour than an eggy crepe does, these tortillas had a major impact on my opinion of our food at Burrito Joe’s.

The second choice was a beef burrito, which can be ordered with ground or cubed/shredded beef. Loving slowly braised, fall-apart meats, I always opt for shredded over ground when I get the chance, and I was not disappointed in the least. The beef inside this burrito was, indeed, incredibly tender, a dark hue showing that it had been saturated in a seasoned liquid and its own juices for an extended period of flavor-fortifying and texture-perfecting time. Smoothing out the beefiness of the burrito were creamy refried beans.

I ordered my burrito with queso fresco and then opted to make it a spread for an extra buck, meaning it gets topped with more meat, sauce and cheese and reheated to melt the cheese. This turned out to be a dollar well-spent. The sauce and melted cheese really dress up the tortilla and please the eyes when the platter is placed on the table in front of hungry diners.

Burritos come with a side of rice, as well as lettuce and diced tomatoes, both of which actually appeared to be fresh, a somewhat shocking revelation as far as burrito accoutrements go. We ordered up a half-sized portion of guacamole for $2.75 which was a fairly generous cup-full. It was super-creamy which, to me, isn’t necessarily a great thing, but overall it was a pleasant addition.

We cleaned our plates but had to roll ourselves out the door. We were stuffed and I remained so until late that evening.

In the end, I left Burrito Joe’s surprised. I liked it quite a bit more than expected. I liked that it was a little different than the other Mexican restaurants around—more focused in its offering with a killer hook: those homemade tortillas. I was impressed with the value; for fast food prices, we got large burritos with a side of rice and free chips and salsa. And to have it right there on 39th, owned and operated in a space I’d love to see successfully inhabited by a Kansas City family was a special kicker for me. It will be interesting to see how they do, as well as interesting to see whether it truly reels me back in for repeat visits or not. I can’t quite tell if I’ll become a regular at Burrito Joe’s or not, but my first trip in was definitely enoucouraging.

Rating: two napkins

Burrito Joe's on Urbanspoon

May 14, 2011

Coal Vines: One and Done

Restaurant: Coal Vines
Location: 616 Ward Parkway (Plaza)
Food: Pizza, Italian
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Trendy, cheesy
Price: Apps $6-$10; Pizzas $13-$17, Entrees $12-$15
Rating: One Napkin

Every now and then a good night's sleep leads to a point of clarity upon awakening. After sleeping on my first trip to Coal Vines last night, I had one such moment waking up today. It was this simple assessment: Coal Vines is the type of restaurant that was clearly started by businessmen looking to make a buck.

One look at the safe, small menu, a glance around at the decor and the second that crooner music registered above the roar of the dining room noise it was obvious that every decision made in the creation of the restaurant was geared toward pleasing the masses and maximizing "dollaric intake."

Coal Vines has one of the safest menus I've come across in quite some time. It's a pizza joint, dressed up in man-7's and a hundred dollar shirt from Nordstrom. There's just nothing original going on here. Apps like bruschetta, mozzarella sticks and fried calamari. Six pizzas, a couple of them white. Entrees like salmon, roasted chicken and a few pastas. Two sandwiches, chicken parm and.. oh wait, the second one is also chicken parm, but with tomato, onion and arugula added called, get this, The Godfather.

I can just hear the conversation that led to this restaurant concept: "You know what people like? They like fried calamari, pizza and Frank Sinatra." But here's the thing: that statement is absolutely, undeniably, 100 percent true. It's a proven business model.

Coal Vines was still packed when we arrived around 9:30. It was dark and warm inside with a lot of noise--clinking of glasses, banging in the kitchen and a loud hum of laughter and conversation; it was the type of greeting that makes one feel safe about his/her restaurant decision. It told the brain that it was in a successful, popular place where people want to be and are enjoying themselves.

We were taken by a polite host to our seat at the far east end of the restaurant, under the massive mural of those cliched crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. For what it was, the mural was attractive enough - black and white, lit with spotlights reminiscent of the ones those two lived under during their working days - but I've had all the Martin and Sinatra I can stomach in Italian restaurants. They're played out. I shuddered slightly each time I looked up at them.

After an initial glance at the menu, we decided to embrace the cliches and ordered up the mesclun salad, fried calamari and a pizza. Why not review the food that the majority of Coal Vines customers will also get?

Lest readers think I'd written off the place based on my personal restaurant snobbery, I'll come right out and say all the food was good. The salad greens were lightly coated in the bacon vinaigrette. What it lacked in apples (each half had just two wafer-thin slices) and montrachet (two tiny dollops) it made up for with sweet, tangy cranberries. The calamari was nice and lightly fried, the rare kind of fried food of which I could eat lots. And the pizza, a 14-inch, thin crusted pie with red sauce, sausage and roasted red peppers, was meaty and delicious. New York-influenced, the slices were huge, almost begging to be folded Brooklyn style. Then again, it reminded me that I've had better pizza served to me on a paper plate on a street corner in Manhattan for $3.50. But it was good and I ate much of it.

We washed it all down with a sugary-sweet Coppola pinot which, at $35, was a little overpriced. The wine list was chock-full of grocery store names, including several Jacob's Creek selections I'd be remiss not to point out are often available at Sunfresh in Westport for as little as $4.99, normally on sale for $6.99. There is a list of Private Cellar selections ("Bad Boys at a Good Price"), but they, too, are mega-popular labels like Silver Oak, Chateau St. Jean, Trefethen and Cakebread. Spin!, quite honestly, has a more inspired and reasonably priced wine selection. With a name that nods to wine, Coal Vines ought to step up their wine game.

I left Coal Vines happy enough about the food I ate (note, they serve brunch, too, which from the sounds of Charles Ferruzza's review is a poorly done attempt to carry over the business RE:verse used to bring it at that time of day), but without motivation to return. It's a perfectly enjoyable restaurant that will appease picky, unadventurous eaters (read: the lemmings who pile into chains all across the country), but that's not what I seek out with my dining dollars.

Still, its business savvy owners should feel satisfied; I'm sure it will make plenty of money.

Rating: one napkin

Coal Vines Pizza & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon
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