Thursday, September 24, 2009

Let's go people! We've got a show to do.

My friend Ginny, who owned six restaurants in her career, once told me her secret to running a successful business. “You have to be there,” she said. “At least 85% of the time.” And she was. I know because for several years I worked as a cook and a waiter in her diner. She hired me on the 4th of July, 1987. Anyone in the restaurant business knows this is one of the busiest days of the year, especially for the breakfast crowd. Before plopping down their lawn chairs and beer coolers along Main Street for the big parade, Middle America is filling up on a hearty, greasy holiday breakfast. And on this day, I was responsible for cooking it.

I remember standing in front of a four-burner gas stove ready to take up my position as The Egg Man. (It wasn't a big metal industrial jobby that you’d expect to see in a restaurant; no, this was a Kenmore kitchen stove like you’d see in your grandma's kitchen). Kevin, the guy training me, ran the grill and the fryer, and I was responsible for the stove and the toaster. This was all well and good, but when I went to turn my first batch of over easy eggs, there wasn’t a spatula in sight.

Hearing my frantic cries for help, Ginny came over to me and in a calm voice simply said, “We don’t use spatulas here.”

“What!? You put me on the busiest station in the kitchen on the busiest day of the year and you tell me I can’t use a spatula!?”

“Yup. You’ll get the hang of it.”

And I did. It took a couple of weeks and dozens of broken eggs, but I managed to free myself from what I called the middle man of egg turning. Coupled with my skill at cracking an egg one-handed, I became the Superhero of the Egg Station. By the time I cracked the eggs in the pan on the fourth burner, I turned with ease to the first pan, flipped, and then plated the eggs in one impressively smooth motion. At first I fought the spatula-less approach, but Ginny is a smart woman and there’s money-making method to her madness. When you’re pumping out eggs as fast as we were, every second counts and it really is more time saving to work with just your hands. Ginny knew how to run her restaurant, and she knew how to manage her staff. Had she gone into theatre, she would have made and excellent director.

The owner of El Patrero on the Southeast side of Flint must adhere to Ginny's school of thought. I’ve been to his restaurant at least 25 times and he’s there every time. He’s not just there, he’s working his tail off. And he has a very disciplined wait staff working for him. The kitchen crew must be equally disciplined because no matter how busy or slow it is, the food comes out quickly. I feel like a guest when I eat here, and it’s because this guy knows how to run his business.

El Patrero first opened four or five years ago in the old Pizza Hut on the corner of Atherton Road and Dort Highway. Even before they had a liqueur license they began drawing loyal followers. They closed up last year and reopened earlier this year in a plaza on the northwest corner of Hill road and Fenton Road. I’m not sure what happened, but El Patrero isn’t the only Mexican restaurant to open in one location and then move somewhere else. El Nopal is a case in point. So are the next two places on my “Lunches With Stephanie” list. A kind of transience exists here that I don’t quite understand, but it’s accompanied by an even stronger resilience.
Stephanie and I agree that El Patrero’s food, while pretty excellent at the Dort Highway location, seems to have gotten even better since moving into the new place. Even if that’s all in our heads, the food is definitely worth checking out.

It’s customary, in most Flint area Mexican restaurants, for the host or hostess to serve up a basket of chips and fresh salsa as soon as you sit down--the Hispanic equivalent of breadstick or cracker baskets. My theory is that this ritual is a way to keep you busy, and happy, while you wait for your drinks and food. I also think there is a direct correlation between the quality of the salsa and the quality of food a restaurant serves. El Patrero has a great salsa that’s not terribly hot but creates a nice balance of tomato, onion, pepper, and cilantro flavors. I usually save enough to spoon over my rice because it adds a little extra zip.

If you like more heat in your salsa like I do, here’s a little secret. Always ask the server if they offer a hotter version of the salsa that you’ve been served. Not all places offer this under-the-radar option, but El Patrero does, and it’s awesome! It’s a darker sauce with a smoky chipotle kick to it that I find irresistible. It also tastes great slathered atop their bean dip, which is basically a plate of really good refried beans under a layer of white cheese sauce. Naughty, comfortable, and deeeeelicious!

Like most most places, the menu here is way too big (by about half), but ignore most of it and go right to the “Create Your Own Combinations”. Here you can pick and choose what and how much you want. It’s a great way to sample the menu to see what you like and what you don’t. I’m partial to the chile rellenos, chimicanga, and hard taco combination. The chimi isn’t anything to write home about—ground meat rolled in a flower tortilla, deep fried, and smothered in white cheese sauce—but the chile relleno ranks up there as one of the best entrees I’ve eaten.

The chile relleno, or “stuffed chile,” is traditionally made with a roasted poblano pepper that is then stuffed with cheese or meat, dredged through an egg batter, and fried. Already it meets all the criteria for the Tater Tot Casserole Award! El Patrero doesn’t dredge in egg batter, but the peppers are nicely roasted, and the whole dish looks like it was put under the broiler for a minute or two just before serving. The chile is then drizzled with a white queso and served with a relatively simple presentation. It’s one dish where the star ingredient takes center stage. Lighter than the traditional preparation, this dish has completely won me over. It is, as you might have guessed, the first candidate for the TTC award.

After I’ve polished off my meal—the portions are good but not overwhelmingly large—and the plates have been taken away, the owner almost always stops by to say hi and ask for feedback on the experience. I see the slightly tired, slightly tattered look on his face, and I think of my friend Ginny. Running a restaurant is exhausting and largely thankless work, but when you put out consistently good food, and when you know you’ve made your customers happy, you feel a certain satisfaction and pride about that work. As he shakes my hand and says goodbye, I can tell Mr. El Patrero is pleased with the show he just directed.


  1. I'm still on the fence about the El Adobe place that just opened in Mt. Morris. It's close but it's not that impressive. What I *do* like there is the relleno. It comes not only stuffed with cheese, but chicken and beef if you like. One of the best I've ever had.

  2. I didn't know aobut that place in MM. If I go, I'll know to try their relleno. You said something the other day that I'm finding to be really accurate. A number of these mexican places are just coookie cutter copies of each other. Patrero, Panchos, and Tia Helitas are all pretty much the same, with few exceptions. I was at Ponchos yesterday and thought of your comments.