Friday, October 14, 2011

New 'Hood, New Food: bodega taco bar

I aim to make this the first in a series of quick and dirty reviews…trying to keep pace with exploring new eating spots in an entirely new state (for us).

bodega taco bar is the taco bar alter-ego to the awesome, dingy, value-oriented Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk. That breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot is small, cramped, always seemingly bustling, and has a rambling menu of 'Venezuelan beach food.' Where Valencia is a bit rough around the edges, bodega taco bar is polished, seemingly gleaming, and dialed. Though small, there are a variety of seating choices. They include a bunch of bar stools, a handful of hightop tables along the restaurant’s perimeter, and about twenty seats at proper tables towards the front of the restaurant. Where Valencia doesn’t serve any wine, beer, or spirits (though I do think it is a BYO spot), bodega has a prominently displayed bar with all sorts of rums and tequilas and beer and wine. For my lunchtime visit, I sat at the bar and had a friendly interaction with a bartender who seemed genuinely proud of the food and drink on offer.

The menu offers a pretty broad range of meal sizes, from ‘little cravings’ to ‘principal plates.’ The specials board showed off some apparently seasonal and creative offerings. For my one lunch visit, I order a couple items off the specials menu and one item off the regular menu.

--Roasted Corn and Chorizo Chowder ($6): This dish was a special and was a very solid soup. The base/broth was super, super silky, rich, and lush. Seriously, it was like velvet in the mouth. I did see nice char on the corn, but didn’t really taste any smokiness from that roasting. The corn was, however, sweet…even this late in the season. The chorizo was not particularly spicy. Also, it was not the crumbly style of chorizo. It was more of a tightly packed sausage…like a kielbasa. Usually one to shy away from salt, I was looking for a bit more saltiness in the soup and a bit more spiciness from the chorizo. Fresh cilantro on top of the soup was an excellent touch and lent a bright note to an otherwise very deeply flavored chowder. Carrots and celery chunks were of the right size and texture to give this a real chunky chowder mouth feel. The serving was generous for the price and included a substantial amount of chorizo.

--Baja Taco ($4): This taco is on the regular menu and is described as ‘panko crusted mahi mahi, pico de gallo, lemon aioli.’ All tacos are served on soft corn tortillas “nixtamal.” The taco was very small. From a value standpoint, I was a bit surprised by the serving size. While $4 is not a lot of cash, the portion size struck me as much more of a $3 item. Ignoring that, the taco was quite good. The tortilla was pliable and did not fall apart and actually contributed a corn flavor to the dish (unlike some not-quite-there flour tortillas). The fish was fried expertly. The panko was crispy and crunchy and the fish inside was flaky and piping hot. Hard to know if it was actual mahi mahi, as the piece was pretty small. Generally, this was a refreshing morsel. The salsa was very simple and traditional pico de gallo. The lemon aioli did not overwhelm the dish and the extra squeeze of lemon I gave the taco definitely brightened it up. Two extra salsas provided in squeeze bottles (a la Valencia) were not really needed in this case. Next to the taco on the plate, a pickled jalapeno was very tasty. The bartender explained the peppers are soaked in a vinegar and sugar brine. For me, those ingredients mellowed out any sharp jalapeno spiciness and turned the pepper into a very edible condiment, not unlike a good pickle at your neighborhood Jewish deli.

--Lamb Meatloaf Arepa ($8): This item was also on the specials menu. For starters, the arepa cake was a bit smaller than those at Valencia. Hand formed, this could also just be a factor of the day’s arepa preparer. This small sandwich was basic. Slabs of meat tucked into the arepa cake. But the flavor was really full and bold. The arepa cake was crispy fried outside and dense, sweet, and slightly crumbly inside. The thin-ishly sliced meatloaf was firm and dense. Piping hot, I think it was finished on the grill to heat it up. Before I ordered it, I asked the bartender if it was dressed with any extras. The bartender punted to a colleague and that guy (manager or cook?) explained the loaf had peppers and onions baked in and the sandwich included some caramelized onions and a sauce. It was as described. The onions were a solid addition for some textural variety and the sauce was pretty close to ketchup, but with some spicier notes (the bartender claimed the flavor was chipotle, but I don’t think that was the added ingredient). The meatloaf clearly tasted of lamb, with some good gaminess. Also, the meatloaf edges were a bit burned/charred and I appreciated the crispiness and smoke flavor that overcooking added to the dish. I can imagine some won't like that crispy, burnt edge. Though very straightforward (meat plus ‘bread’), this sandwich was satisfying and flavorful.

I washed all the food down with a pineapple Jarritos soda ($2.50). For $21.80 (pre-tip), lunch at bodega taco bar was filling, flavorful, and worth the trip to Fairfield.