Saturday, January 30, 2010

El Bistro Loco

My favorite episode of the Flintstones is the one where Fred drags his family and friends into the business of making and selling gooseberry pies. The pies were delicious, we’re led to believe, but as it turns out, Fred wasn’t the world’s brightest business mind, and in the end he was left with a big wagon load of melted gooseberry pies, no customers, and a pretty unhappy, laid off, workforce. As I watched this episode on the television suspended above the tables at Guadalajara Grill on South Dort Highway, I thought to myself, Soyla could probably learn something from this episode.

After my recent visit to Soylas Mexican Restaurant, on 2nd Street in downtown Flint, and after my encouraging comments about the improvements I saw, several of you have also gone back to give it a try. The votes have been tallied and I’m sorry to say, the gooseberry pies are melting, my friends. Your comments indicate that while the food has improved, the service has not. I’m an optimist though, and I still believe she can right the ship. She’s half way there with the improved quality of her food. She just needs to work out the bugs with the service and the wait staff. Once she does that, there’s no reason she shouldn’t’ start drawing a larger and larger base of loyal fans.

In case you’re wondering why I was watching Flintstones reruns at the Guadalajara Grill, by the way, I was having lunch there with Stephanie on Thursday. I hadn’t eaten there in a few years, and my friend, Christian, totally not his real name, boasted to me recently that this was the only place in town with authentic Mexican meals on its menu. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the Bistek al a Mexicana, the mixed vegetables with liver, or the tongue platter, but they were certainly dishes I hadn’t seen on any other menus around town.

The Guadalajara Grill is actually housed in an abandoned Taco Bell, so the dining room is pretty intimate with a total of 9 tables neatly situated in such a way as to create what looks like a semi-intentional ambiance. They’ve done some marginal remodeling to the front counter and giant Taco Bell wall menu above it, so the decor is a little bit like fast food meets we’ll get-around-to-finishing-the-interior-design-a-little-later.

Other than that it’s just your run-of-the-mill surreal Mexican restaurant. Take the bat phone for example. There it was, plain as day, sitting on the front counter, this bright red old fashioned phone, just like you see in the movies. I was so distracted by it that I didn’t see our server drop off a warm basket of chips and two salsas. For some reason, I half expected the damn thing to ring. Maybe the owner has a sense of humor and uses it as the take-out phone.

The house mild salsa was more like a puree with some onion chunks mixed in and a whole lot of black pepper to give it its only heat. A little heavy handed on the pepper, I gotta tell ya. It took me back to last October when we had a very similar version at Alejandro’s, over on Elms Road. I’m just not sure black pepper is the best backdrop to a good salsa. Guadalajara’s medium salsa, though, was yabba dabba delicious! It had good body, fresh cilantro, chunky tomatoes and onions, and just enough finely diced jalapeno peppers to give it a warm after taste. We went through two bowls of this between our chips and our entrees.

The appetizer choices were pretty slim, and there was no cheese dip option, which I found a bit peculiar. It’s like going to a sushi bar and finding they don’t have miso soup on the menu. If soup as an appetizer course is appealing to you, though, Guadalajara has a good selection. Judging from the prices, five to six bucks a bowl, they’re probably hearty enough for at least two people. They had Pazole, Menudo, and several beef and chicken soups with vegetables and various spices. If you like Mexican spices, by the way, you can take home your own private stash if you visit the Guadalajara. They have a grocery store-like rack at the end of the dining room (just under the hanging television, and just over from the red bat-phone) with a couple dozen spices in medium sized packages. You can get anything from chili powders to lemon sticks to a wide variety of dried peppers. It’s the most unique feature I’ve ever seen in a Mexican restaurant, and terribly clever I might add.

Without the queso course that Steph and I have come to rely on, we moved right to the main menu, which was both manageable in its size and reasonable in its pricing. I was feeling particularly adventurous, so I set aside my usual chimichanga order and went with the Bistek al a Mexicana. What could possibly go wrong? he asked himself as he watched Fred Flintstone mark down the price on his wagon load of half melted gooseberry pies.

Stephanie, determined to find the best enchiladas in Flint, finally gave up on the chicken version. This one’s too dry; this one’s too wet, this one’s just gross and tasteless. So, in her throw-caution-to-the-wind spirit, she ordered the beef enchiladas instead—with green tomatillo sauce! Tomatillo, you ask? Well, I always thought it was just a green Mexican tomato, and then I looked it up online so I could impress you with my vast knowledge of the origins of ethnic food. What I found was far more surreal than this dining experience itself. The tomatillo, which is not even a tomato by the way, is “a plant of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, related,” are you ready for this? “to the cape gooseberry.” Is that really what Fred Flintstone’s pies were made of?

Meanwhile, Stephanie and I were trying to ignore all the goofy goings-on around us and catch up on the last two weeks. (We didn’t have our regular lunch last Thursday because I was out of town.) Just as she was getting into the heart of what a brutal two weeks she had been through, the owner of El Potrero, another Mexican restaurant over on Hill and Fenton, walked through the front door, his young daughter in tow, went straight to the red bat phone and made a call. He talked for a few minutes, hung up, and the two of them walked back out the front door. Stephanie and I just looked at each other in total bewilderment and started laughing. Before we could make heads or tails of what just happened, the sever arrived with our entrees.

Stephanie’s beef enchiladas were quite flavorful, the corn tortillas well put together, and the tomatillo verde sauce was, according to her, “excellent!” The beans and rice, well that was another story. Like so many places we’ve been to, it’s like they put all their effort into the main part of the entrée and just gave up on the beans and rice. The beans were water y and not very flavorful, and the rice was goopy and bland. I thought for a minute about buying a few packets of spices off the rack and re-doing the rice at the table myself. Instead, I pushed it aside and put my energy into the rest of the plate.

My meal was good but nothing to write home about. It was a mound of thinly sliced beef, sautéed with onions, peppers, and tomatoes, and doctored up with some fairly mild spices. The freshly sliced jalapenos added a nice bold taste and texture to the dish that probably saved it from all out mediocrity. It was served with warm flour tortillas, so basically my meal was a glorified fajita, with beans, rice, and a pretty little lettuce salad topped with chopped tomatoes. I poured some of the medium salsa over it, which made for a unique and acceptable dressing.

While our server was busy clearing away the rubble and tallying our check, a new episode of the Flintstones had started. It was the one where a Fred look-alike wreaks havoc on his life by masquerading as an Elvis impersonator and getting him in trouble with Wilma. I won’t ruin it by giving the ending away, but if you stop by the Guadalajara Grill for lunch, you just might catch it yourself.


  1. When this place first opened up a few years ago, we waited a few weeks and paid a visit. An our later we were sick and I passed it off as having come from the gym and a pretty heavy workout.So a few weeks later, I grabbed my sister in law and her kids (she is Hispanic and knows the foods well). The service wasn't great but we all ate something different (being vegetarian, I am more picky). Later that night, sick again. I never went back and it could have been the water, ice cubes, who knows but two times? Have never been back and actually didn't know it was still there.You want the best enchi's? Either at my sister in law's mom's house (meat filled) or mine (spinach filled) I have to say the best I have found in an eatery were in Saginaw on Bay Road -they put sliced potatoes, chilis, cheese and onion, then baked them. OMG-once I asked them to be filled with eggs as it was breakfast after a road race in Bay City. YUM!

  2. I'm not a doctor but if I recall correctly most food-borne illnesses require several hours to work through your system. An immediate reaction sounds more like chemical poisoning.

  3. Bob, have I ever told you how much I enjoy your writing style? What a fun blog!

  4. I think the bat phone has something to do with transferring money internationally. Granted, it's been three to four years since I've eaten there, but I vaguely remember that.

  5. Really? The bat phone has been there that long? Now I have to go back and find out!