Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Unluckiest Restaurant in the World

My heart goes out to this earnest spot. My palate too: Their food is unequivocally lovely. A few years ago the owners bought and refurbished their brick building in the middle of a crummy block. Lots of empty storefronts, little foot traffic, frequent gang skirmishes in the area.

The foodie community embraced this little-restaurant-that-could (the photo above is from those early halcyon days). They hailed the fresh seafood and inventive moles. They honored them with awards and put them on the map. But it was a rocky map at best.

"Meet for dinner? Over there?"

Sure, we neighborhood folks embraced the place, but it couldn't sustain itself as a destination for visitors, and the prices were a little too high for this working-class area to keep them afloat. Last fall, the fate we'd both dreaded and expected came to pass: The owners locked the doors, turned their sign to Closed, and concentrated on their other spot in a north-side neighborhood with far more passersby, and a heap more purchasing power.

Then, surprising news. The place was reopening with a new concept. Inexpensive gourmet tacos with a slew of homemade salsas for customizing. I had the best bowl of pozole of my life there once, and it seemed like all was right in River City.

We did what we could to talk the place up. We got a few friends there, but in fairly short order, the quality declined, the salsas ran out, they pozole was 86'd, and paper was over the windows again.

Three days later, a favorable review ran in the Sun Times. Foodies sought the place out again, only to find it shuttered. Really?!

Just as we made our peace with them being gone for good, a shocking announcement: The place was reopening yet again, going back to their roots with bright, earthy moles and plates large and small. Oh, did I mention their reopening date was two short weeks after the grand opening of the new record store across the street? That weekend featured nonstop live music and hundreds of visitors to the area, many of whom were probably looking for something to eat. The taquerias got their business. The opportunity got missed.

Now, with a rehabbed menu and brave face, they manage to turtle along with maybe four or five tables on a good night. Almost everything I've ordered there has been delicious, though my last visit started having those markings of a restaurant in decline. My tamale was dry, and I'd brought a friend along with me, only to have her notice a rat scurry along the outdoor seating area. This is the city and these things can happen, but why do they always seem to happen to this place?

You have to wonder. Is this one of those right time, wrong place scenarios? A splendid concept with poor execution? Maybe a restaurant on autopilot, with nobody driving the train?

Or maybe it's like that really nice guy we all know: The one who seems like such a great catch but is always unlucky in love. The one we'd love to set up our little sister with, if our little sister were still single. But our little sister isn't single. She's already got a great guy. So we try to entice our single friends, but they're a little cannier than we are. Where we see heart, they see awkwardness. Where we see potential, they see unfinished business. Where we see fragility, they see impotence.

The best this place can probably hope for, I fear, is a few more months in remission. I block out what I imagine their staff meetings to be: Heavy sighs, staff reductions, hanging on for dear life -- maybe even saving up newspaper for the windows. I try to hope for the best, but I fear I should grab my huitlacoche while I can.


Rosemary said...

Such a sad story...and the analogy to the Great Guy is perfect. There seems to be a tipping point where restaurants "reinventing" themselves becomes more of a disincentive to go there than an enticement. To continue your analogy, kinda like the nice guy who tries too hard, is just a little too sincere. Shame--it sounds delicious (especially to this reader living in a town with no interesting Mexican food).

brian said...

1. I just got some anti-filtering software that allows me unfettered access to the web once more--take that China! Now I can comment like a mofo.
2. I believe that was the restaurant that you and John took me to when I last visited. You predicted a rough road then--sadly your fortune telling has once again proved spot-on.
3. I desperately need a good taco. The first thing I will eat when returning stateside is a taco...several tacos...awww shoot, why not make it a baker's dozen.
4. How many unlucky-in-love nice guys that try to hard do you know? I would count myself among their ranks except I don't try very hard, but I have the awkward part down for sure.