Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Another Pretty Face

If I chose the restaurants I visit solely on the looks of the exterior of the buildings that house them, I’d probably eat at home far more often than I do. Why is it that most restaurateurs do so little to make the outside of their businesses as appealing as the inside? If the food they’re hawking is good enough, I suppose a dumpy looking building isn’t going to chase customers away, but really, is that a legitimate business philosophy?

Actually, Stephanie and I were scared away from a restaurant this year because of its devastating appearance. I won’t name names, but we had planned, after working up the courage for several weeks, to have lunch at this particular restaurant. We drove to it, drove by it, turned around and drove by it again, turned around, and drove by it a third time all the while trying to convince ourselves it would be ok to pull into the parking lot. The building looked like it had been plucked from a third-world-Wizard-of-Oz Kansas and dropped, not very carefully, between two other bombed out mud huts.

If I’m feeling a bit indignant about the sloppy design and lack of attention to the part of a business that could, for minimal effort, and marginal cost, be a far more effective advertisement than billboards or bus stop benches, it’s because I feel personally invested in the success of a restaurant. It’s hard enough to make a go of it in this business, so not factoring the look of your establishment into your business plan, and not syncing it with the theme/style/feel of what’s inside could be a fatal mistake. Philip and I learned that lesson the hard way. At least on paper.

As part of our longstanding pipe dream to make enough money off our writing and publishing to leave education and open our own restaurant—that’s why it’s a pipe dream—Philip and I have meticulously planned and designed several iterations of our ideal bistro. We’ve gone so far as to plan complete menus, map out dining room and kitchen spaces, and create and design, using three dimensional computer generated models, full building exteriors.

Some of them actually have potential to move from silly, gin and tonic induced vision to it-just-might-have-a-chance reality. Others, however, will be buried in our family cedar chest and passed on to our daughter who, if she’s as smart as we know she is, will pass them on to her children, and onto their children, until generations from now, one of our descendants will realize the true genius of our thinking and become the proprietor of, say, Pour Boys, a pub with a neon-lit beer pitcher plastered to the building with neon beer being poured into a neon pint glass that welcomes weary travelers. Or The Green Barn Bar and Grill, a barn shaped building painted green; the name Green Barn is a combination of half of my last name and half of Philip’s—Greenfield/Barnett.

We did make a serious run at creating The Lavender Thread River Front Café, and we seriously thought about converting an historic house in Flint’s Cultural Center neighborhood into an upscale restaurant, with each room acting as its own themed dining room. And though it’s not even a restaurant idea, we toyed around with the idea of creating Duds and Suds, a Laundromat and Sports Bar but 1) it’s already been done—in Reno, Nevada, and 2) we’re fundamentally opposed to bringing the two activities together under the same roof.

Many of the restaurants that Stephanie and I have been to this year also fit this pattern of inattention to the outside for a more focused attention on the inner experience. Adequate attention to some of the dining rooms we’ve eaten in were also sacrificed for the owners’ full attention on the food they hoped their customers would come for. One exception was Alejandro’s out on Elms Road. The outside was inviting and the interior was warm, tasteful, and totally consistent with the atmosphere, service, and food. I just learned earlier today, however that Alejandro’s has closed its doors. I don’t know if they’ve moved or moved on. (If you have any better information than mine, please share).

The building that houses Los Ponchos on Fenton Road is one of those shabby looking places that could use some TLC, or at least a good scrub down and a coat of new paint. This is where Stephanie and I ate last week on the twenty-fourth week of our twenty-six week Mexican Tour. Ponchos also had a Davison Road location, which I visited a number of times before it closed up, so now Fenton Road is its main hub—they also have a take-out taco stand on Dort Highway. While the Fenton Road building is as bit of a mess, the creative use of metal to make the sign out front gave us a good chuckle.

The inside could have used a good cleansing too, but the food we came for was good enough that it distracted us from the cluttered, dingy surroundings. The chips were hot and fresh, and while the salsa was more the run-of-the-mill pureed tomatoes and cilantro type, it had enough flavor to satisfy us and, as usual, it was quite tasty on our entrees. I couldn’t tell if the tomatoes were fresh or if they came out of a can, as they had in a number of our previous experiences. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to go through the trouble and expense of using fresh tomatoes, then why not chop them up and make a decent pico de gallo the way Cookie does at Lerado’s.

Stephanie chose first and went right for the combination platter, a tamale, an enchilada, a taco, and a tostada. It was served on two platters and came with a side of beans and rice. The food actually tastes better than it did at the old location, and Stephanie described all of her food the same way: It was solid, consistent, good. That’s exactly how I felt; it didn’t blow me away, but it was even and well put together. The one stand out was the ground beef that was stuffed into Stephanie’s platter. It was probably the most flavorful ground beef of all the places we’ve been to. It was spicy, well balanced, not too dry, not too fatty, just plain delicious.

I ordered the Macho Chimichanga because how could you not order a Mexican dish with such a cool name, with such machismo attached to it? This thing was so big and beefy I actually felt a little wimpy next to it. And Stephanie was right, the beef was a total winner in my dish as well. The beans and rice were nothing to write home about, but they too were tolerable. As good as the food was for me, I started to feel a little like I was eating at about six or seven of the other places on our tour. At some point the food, the presentation, the styles all start running together into one big Tex-Mex stew.

I’m hoping the last two stops on our tour will offer something that makes them stand out from the pack. A killer salsa. Some heavenly chips. The end-all, be-all enchilada. Or at least an attractive building that’s more than just another pretty face.


  1. Pancho's Tacos seemed ok the one time I stopped in. There's seating for like eight people. I grabbed it before heading to the bar.

    As to Alejandro's I have to agree. I never cared for it. The salsa was more akin to marinara sauce in texture and flavor. I stopped out several weeks back and there was a sign in the window stating that they were undergoing renovations and would return soon. Two weeks later the sign was gone and the place was empty.

    Think back to your April 3rd post: Cookie is opening a Mexican place on Elms in Flint Township. Me and a few others posit that Alejandro's is Cookie's new site.

  2. Jon,

    I also had the "Puffy Taco" at Panchos and I thought it was pretty ok. Not great, but ok. And I think you're spot on about Cookie opening her new restaurant where Alejandro's was. I'm so surpirsed that they closed because they were only in that spot for a short time, and it was a really nice place, with what I thought was a decent lunch crowd. That may have changed, but it would be interesting to know why they closed.

  3. I live about a gunshot away from Los Panchos. Emily and I wanted some tacos and stopped by about a half hour before they closed. We walked inside and said we would like to make an order to go. The lady behind the desk said, "We close in a half hour." I asked if that meant we couldn't order and she said, "We close at in a half hour."

    So three years later, and a lot of $$ spent at La Azteca, Guadalara, and El Protreros, we haven't been back.

  4. Bob:

    I was indeed correct. I was informed that the old Alejandro's is the new Lupe's and that it was packed Friday night.

  5. Yah Jon, I went there Saturday afternoon to visit the owner and see what's up. Stephanie and I are going to officially end our Mexican tour there on Cinco de Mayo.

  6. Jason,
    Sorry to hear about the bad attitude. You picked really good alternatives. I just had lunch at El Potrero again the other day. Love that place.

  7. Hey Jon,

    Lupe's didn't set up in that building where Alejandros was, but in the little building just to the south of that plaza. It's pretty cool on the inside and only has about six or eight tables.