Aug 082011
 

This building has housed more decent Mexican restaurants in the last five years than I can count. Actually, wait, I can count them. Tarahumara started there and later moved to 87th and Farley before closing a year or two ago. Later Coyoacan/Tamales to Go moved into 5816 Merriam Drive, giving way to Pollo Loco, then La Cabana del Pollo, and now, Carmen’s Cocina. I have been a somewhat muted fan of all of these establishments over the years, but I think Carmen’s may actually survive longer than a year because it demonstrates a little bit of business savvy and some very good, if slightly adulterated Mexican fare.

Exterior

First of all, this place is cheap. I went there last week and got three soft tacos, a Mexican Coke and a basket of chips and salsa for $5.95. The menu is significantly scaled back from previous incarnations: tacos, gorditas, enchiladas, burritos, and cheese fries, wait–cheese fries? Yes, this is an extremely curious addition to an otherwise authentic Mexican palette but don’t let it bother you, just ignore it.

Interior

Unlike other restaurants in this space, Carmen’s asks diners to order and pay at the counter. Table service never worked really well in this joint since the dining area is out of view of the kitchen. After you order, one of the nice folks will bring a basket of freshly fried corn tortilla chips and a generous bowl of salsa to the table. These are among the best chips and salsa you will experience in Kansas City. The chips, as I mentioned, are fried to order or shortly before, and are thicker and more lightly salted than those from a bag. The salsa is a thinner variety with good heat and a nice tomato and chile flavor. Truly excellent and free.

Chips

Carmen’s typically offers a special (of which the aforementioned 3 taco deal was one) and they are sometimes quite enticing. For instance while tamales are not typically on the menu, they do offer them periodically as specials. I’m kicking myself for not trying them when they were offered on a visit a couple months ago.

Tamales

Nontheless, the meats are very good. My only complaint is that they are sometimes a little dry as the carnitas were on my last visit. The offer a very tasty shredded beef–known as desebrada at other Mexican restaurants-which could use a little moisture but is very well flavored. The chicken “fajita” meat is absolutely delicious though somewhat unusual for tacos. It consists of white meat, marinated in lime, chiles and spices, grilled to juicy perfection. I usually prefer a more homestyle shredded or picked chicken but I can’t argue with the taste of Carmen’s pollo. This place is somewhat geared toward the American taste profile so you’ll find no lengua, cabeza or tripe on the menu. These tacos come with a layer of melted cheese on the bottom of the tortilla which is wholly unnecessary tastewise, but serves to keep the moisture from eating through the bottom of the taco. They also come with a littleĀ  tomato and sometimes lettuce in addition to onions and cilantro which is somewhat unusual.

Tacos

Don’t miss the gorditas. For a little more than the price of a tacos, you can get a lovely little meat pocket which makes for a nice accompaniment to a taco or two on days when you are a little more hungry.

Tacos and gordita

As previous tenants have been, this place appears to be a family-operated business. A white guy typically takes orders and works the register. A couple of Latina women and a teenage girl work the back of the house, while a really young kid wanders around and occasionally helps out by delivering baskets of chips to tables. These folks are very friendly and I assume that they are related to one another in some fashion or another. Having a meal at Carmen’s will make you happy that you are supporting these folks.

Carmen's Cocina on Urbanspoon

Sep 122009
 

I first heard about Georgetown Pharmacy from the Pitch’s Fat City blog a while back. I recall Charles Ferruzza giving it a brief shoutout but for the life of me I cannot locate the post on the site. For anyone who has tried to search for anything on the Pitch’s Web site, you are familiar with this problem. Nonetheless I did find the piece in which former Fat City blogger Owen Morris claims Georgetown Pharmacy has the 6th best milkshake in town earlier this summer.
Georgetown Pharmacy
Always intrigued by the entire notion of soda fountains, I decided to pay a visit recently. Heading up Merriam Drive I blew right by the place, a long, low nondescript brick building next to an auto repair shop.

This is not a pharmacy in the Walgreens or CVS sense of the word. While a genuine drug-dispensary, this place also specializes in medical supplies like wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, colostomy bags, compression stockings and male impotence pumps. No toys, cigarettes, celebrity magazines or lawn furniture. There is however a small display of 15 year old greeting cards.

At the back of the pharmacy is the entrance to the soda fountain, a curious little space that bears almost no resemblance to the drug store counters of yore.

Georgetown Pharmacy.

Georgetown Pharmacy

The preponderance of blond wood, the laminate countertops and the presence of mass produced Coca-Cola paraphernalia modeled after old advertisements belie the claim that they have “re-created an old time soda fountain” (from their website). While there are a handful of chrome bar stools, the sitting area looks like a corporate breakroom or the waiting area of a doctor’s office. Indeed the entire space seems to have been decorated with items procured from the TJ Maxx housewares section.

At the stroke of 12 noon there were two lone customers in the joint. This place was not bustling, it was barely moving. A teenage girl stood attentively but meekly behind the counter. The sheer stillness of the room was punctuated only by some canned 60’s hits subtly piped in on an overhead speaker. While there, I was treated to the Beach Boys, Beatles, Chuck Berry and an inexplicable cover of “You are my Sunshine” by Anne Murray.

A couple of dry-erase boards on the wall display all of their menu items. They offer a dizzying array of old school soda fountain drinks like phosphates, malts, shakes and egg creams. The food menu is more of an afterthought: burgers, brats, hot dogs, chicken salad.

Georgetown Pharmacy

I ordered a cheeseburger and was somewhat surprised to see the girl fetch a frozen patty from the back room and walk it out to a small patio beyond the side entrance. There she put the burger on a small gas grill and came back to make my chocolate malt.

Georgetown Pharmacy

While I’m no aficionado, the malt didn’t really float my boat. It tasted pretty good, but there were some large lumps of semi-solid ice cream in the glass in addition to streaks of dry malt powder. It simply was not blended sufficiently. The portion was hefty, but it should be for $4.50.

The girl made another trip or two out to the grill, finally bringing back the burger. She then asked me what I wanted on it. Then she took it to the back room for 5 minutes applying lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. Realizing there was no ketchup on the table, I asked for some and was treated to a couple of Hunt’s packets. This will shock you, but the burger was pretty awful. The already suspect frozen patty had been cooked to death and wasn’t improved by the cheap grocery store bun or the paper plate.

Cheeseburger

Frozen patties just don’t taste good, people. They have a rubbery consistency and almost nonexistent flavor. This was basically the kind of burger you get at a high school football game. Not gross, but not that good.

I can’t really explain this business. Clearly the pharmacy side of things is successful enough. No doubt the owners are justifiably excited about having a working soda fountain allied with their business. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is just plain odd. It’s not genuine retro, not even mock-retro but rather some sterile approximation of grandma’s kitchen. While clean and spacious, it’s not a comfortable place to hang out. I can see how it would be nice to stop by and grab a milkshake or ice cream cone on a hot weekend day. Indeed I think it is an asset to the neighborhood because of that fact.

This place doesn’t need to do lunch. Apparently they don’t even have a working stovetop or grill, so why are they trying to make burgers and brats? There really is very little thought evident in the whole food enterprise and I can’t recommend it, particularly when there are better places like Pollo Loco, Grandstand and El Pulgarcito so close by.

Georgetown Pharmacy & Soda Fountain on Urbanspoon

Sep 152008
 

UPDATE: Pollo Loco has closed and reopened as La Cabana Del Pollo.

Once again, thanks to Faith for keeping me honest (or at least marginally competent) about the difference between a sketchy local Mexican joint and a national restaurant chain.

Pollo Loco has been open less than two weeks. I drove by on Monday and noticed that there were a couple cars in the lot so I figured what the hell. I walked into the dining room to find a clean but completely undecorated space. Essentially the room held four formica booths, two of which were occupied by Latino gentlemen who, judging from their clothing were definitely in the painting business.

Though this was obviously a Mexican establishment, the smell of the place was unmistakably that of BBQ. They were obviously using a healthy dose of smoke in their cooking. I’d wager hickory if my taste buds are to be trusted (they’re not). Before I sat down, a woman noticed my entrance and somewhat apologetically indicated that they were operating with a very limited menu. While I stood there she explained the primary offering: a half a smoked chicken with tortillas, salsa, rice and other stuff. That sounded damn good to me, having read Meesha’s post about Super Pollo on Independence Ave a couple weeks ago. It sounded similar and in the end, it was.

She delivered a can of coke from a cooler full of Jarritos fruit sodas and cans of domestic pop. My food arrived before I could even get out my phone to check twitter. Seriously, like 1 minute. Crazy Fast chicken is right people!

The chicken arrived on a styrofoam plate and looked like a right mess.

But damn it tasted good. Yep this is simply half a chicken cooked on a smoky grill, roughly hacked into pieces and thrown on a disposable plate with no garnish.

So what.

Grilled chicken is no great mystery, but it’s definitely one of the most satisfying meals of all time. They managed to smoke it without giving the skin that rubbery texture of the “low & slow” method. So I’m guessing that they smoke it at a high temperature. It was juicy, flavorful, not overly smoky, had crunchy skin and was cooked well.

The rice was very typical of Mexican restaurants: small exploded grains with a mild stock-ish flavor and pale red hue. The corn tortillas were not homemade but tasted fresh and good enough. And holy cow, marinated red onions, just like Meesha had at Super Pollo. Those things are perfect accompaniment to the chicken.

So obviously this is a distinctive variety of Mexican or Mexican American cuisine. Grill-smoked chicken on a tortilla with salsa and pickled onions. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this trend before.

But I got something else with my meal: macaroni salad! WTF? Seriously the plate came with a mayonnaise-dressed macaroni salad with chucks of ham in it. I’m sorry, did my aunt Rita sneak in the Pollo Loco kitchen when I wasn’t looking?

Okay, so the pasta salad was not the best thing ever, but it wasn’t horribly executed and overall the meal was very good. Did I mention that this was a shit-ton of food? Easily enough for two people. And it cost me six bucks.

However the best part was the service. The waitress only had a few tables to deal with, and the place is new so she was overly attentive if anything. But it was cool and I did ask her a few questions about the place; she was very accommodating and friendly. She said that last week was kind of a soft launch but they had no register and no change which was kind of a mess. Most of the customers were friends and family so it turned out alright. They will add things to the menu–but not too much, she said, because they want to keep it simple. I was very heartened to hear that. These days they have a cash register but no credit card machine yet (it’s coming). You know what that means? Tax included baby!

She also said Monday was their first day selling tamales. Excellent! The previous business in this location specialized in those little masa nuggets of heaven, and made pretty good ones to boot. I’ll have to try Pollo Loco’s version.

So this place is still ironing out their menu, their workflow and their infrastructure. Judging from what I saw the other day, they have a bright future ahead. If I managed to have a good meal during their first real week of business,I can only imagine that things will get better. And seriously, just being able to chat with the waitress and thank the cook made all the difference. This is so obviously a labor of love for the owners, and honestly one that may not work out. But hopefully if they keep it simple, stay friendly, and maintain the good quality and value they will get along just fine.

El Pulgarcito: 5921 Merriam Dr.

 Posted by at 6:52 pm
Jun 272008
 

Exterior

First of all, a big shout out to reader JH, who suggested I try this place out a month or two back. I truly appreciate all the great suggestions I get, and just wish that I could hit them all in a reasonable time frame. The life of an insatiable glutton is never complete.

Merriam Drive is turning into the best restaurant road on the wrong side of 39th street, what with Grandstand Burgers, Coyoacan, Woodyard BBQ, and now El Pulgarcito, which could be my favorite of the lot.

I haven’t done any research on the place, I didn’t check Yelp or Chowhound or other websites of dubious value to get a sense of what to expect. I have only been to one other Salvadoran restaurant before (now closed) and was pretty impressed at the combination of earthy, spicy, and tangy flavors.

Salvadoran food is analogous to Mexican cuisine, and even features some of the same names: tacos, tamales, burritos, etc. But it ain’t Mexican food, certainly not the type we have come to expect in Kansas City. For one Salvadoran dishes make judicious use of cheese, not the overabundance much Tex-Mex fare has made us accustomed to. Many items incorporate a simple combination of starch (tortilla, dough, bread), meat and spice.

Again, don’t forget I’m no expert on Salvadoran food, these are just my impressions. Is there a Salvadoran in the house?!

With that in mind I’ll go on to say that the pupusa is probably the hallmark of Salvadoran cuisine. El Pulgarcito has a damn good pupusa. It’s basically a flat dough pocket filled with your delicious choice of meat or cheese or whatever. On each table, the restaurant places a large canister of spicy cole-slaw type stuff, known as curtido. Unlike cole slaw, this mixture is vinegary and a little spicy with no sweet undertones.

Curtido

Combined with some mysterious red sauce in a squirt bottle, this was the perfect match for a rich, earthy pupusa (did I just write “rich, earthy pupusa”? ew, yes I did). The pork inside was some seriously delicious stuff, with a deep red color and shredded finely. Ahhh, God it was good.

Pupusas

Pupusas

I also ordered a pork tamale, which had excellent flavor but I found the consistency of the masa to be a tad gritty and not firm enough. Basically it was a little mushy. Did I eat the whole thing? you bet your ass I did.

Tamal

Rice and beans were both great–homemade and well seasoned. The rice was a tad overcooked, but it had probably been sitting in a pot for a while so I’ll give them a break on this one.

What about the atmosphere you ask?

Interior

Well, it’s charming, not because they try to be charming, but it’s just a humble, divey, honest little place. It has windows and booths on three sides with a counter in the center of the room. The whole joint is run by one waitress and one cook. The waitress is very good at her job, much more talkative with Spanish-speaking customers but I think this is just a language comfort thing. I was in and out in less than 1/2 hour. When I left about 1:30, the smallish restaurant was mostly full.

As for clientele, it varies widely inasmuch as a room full of latinos can vary widely. There was a hard-looking guy with a bimbette having a hangover brunch, a young dad and his 3 kids, a single businessman on his lunch break, a middle aged well dressed woman, some guys with repair shop uniforms…you get the idea.

I wish a had a newspaper or something to read while I was there but it was really no big deal. Hell of a lot better than having a television there. Actually, the lack of a TV vastly improves my impression of the place now that I think about it. I’m not a TV nazi, but 99% of the time, if someone else picks the channel, I lose.

Anyhow, El Pulgarcito gets the DLC stamp of approval, for what that’s worth. There is a lot more on the menu that I need to try, namely the whole fried fish I saw coming out of the kitchen to several tables. I overheard a conversation in Spanish between a guy who ate this fish and the waitress. Now, I don’t understand much Spanish but I’m pretty sure he was saying, “I’d like to put that delicious fish all over my private parts.” Yeah it looked and smelled quite spectacular. I’m not big on soup but there were several varieties on the menu and the soup looked homemade, authentic and smelled great.

Oh by the way, prices are good, but not as cheap as your typical Mexican joint. I spent $10 with tip. Of course that included a delicious tamarind drink so you cheapskates can stick with water.

Read more:

Yelp

El Pulgarcito on Urbanspoon

Apr 182008
 

Well people, I made it. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing when it comes to places in Johnson County these days, but I seem to be really making the rounds out there lately. I’m still gunning for the third district spots, believe me, I just can’t really do it during the work week.

In a nutshell, Grandstand makes me a little jealous of Johnson County. And just to get things straight, the stretch of road that houses this humble little burger shack is not cupcakeland. It is total blue collar all the way. What amounts to “downtown” Merriam is little more than some auto repair shops, a lumber yard, a place that sells pavers and so forth, and a little hole in the wall that sells one of the best burgers in the metro.

Yes, I’ll admit that the mystique of the place contributes a lot to its appeal. You can fit approximately 5 people inside the place before you have to start exchanging phone numbers. Most people eat out on picnic tables, with a plastic bottle of ketchup and a handful of overly skimpy napkins. And this place cranks out the burgers. I was there about 1pm yesterday and they were doing a stiff business, half of which was carryout.

Ok, down to brass tacks. The bun is grilled. Condiments come on the sandwich and include lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pickle, onion, and mayo. I always forego mayo because I think it is disgusting. I will never smooch anyone who likes mayonnaise. The cheese is American and prominent in the flavor symphony of the burger. The patty itself is clearly hand-formed and is the perfect size. Personally I don’t like thick “restaurant-style” burgers. I like them thin, and these are fairly thin but really a good size compared to places like Max’s and Town Topic. They offer double and even triple cheeseburgers as well. Wanna see the whole menu?

I ate my cheeseburger in, like, 38 seconds. I just couldn’t stop myself.

I do have a (minor) quibble with the fries. The are cheap, out of the bag, crinkle-cut fries. They cook them as well as you can possibly cook them, by which I mean they don’t undercook them, which everyone seems to do in this town.

No one likes a flaccid potato.

They just seem like cheap fries somehow. I mean Chefburger also uses frozen fries, but you get the feeling that they tried a lot of varieties and chose the best one. I think Grandstand just went for the cheapest that Sysco had to offer. The cheapness comes through in other ways too. For instance, I’m pretty sure that they are rockin’ the generic ketchup in those red bottles. I can just tell. Anyhow, next time I go for the tater tots.

You know elsewhere in the country it is rare to see tater tots on a restaurant menu. No shit. I came to KC a couple years back and all these goddamn places had tater tots–that totally kick ass. Does anyone know why? Does anyone recognize this for the cute little local culinary identifier that it is? Is this a nationwide trend that I only noticed just now?

Read more:

Grandstand Burgers on Urbanspoon

Yelp