Sunday, November 18, 2012

Skip Dessert

Two Step Restaurant & Cantina
9840 North Loop 1604 West
(at Braun Road, on the Northwest Side)

I have a friend, Roland, who lives out in the suburban sprawl of the northwest side, in one of those indistinguishably attractive, oak-studded subdivisions that litter the ground where the grid of streets in the older part of town gives way. He and I and my side-kick Rick made plans to see the new Bond flick, Skyfall, and since Roland has had surgery recently and can't drive, we went out to collect him. We had planned to have lunch at a restaurant near the theater, but some last-minute discussion revealed that none of us was really interested in the place we had planned on. Roland had been there numerous times and pronounced it "okay," hardly a recommendation; Rick had chosen it from a short-list I'd provided after half an hour's research on options in that area; and I had included it on the short-list because it was hyped as a "New Orleans-style cafe." Being a native Orleanian, I was interested. But then I found out that it's a chain restaurant outlet with no connection to New Orleans beyond the fancy of some Hollywood entrepreneur, and anyone who's read more than a couple of the reviews on this site knows that I consider chain restaurants to be the culinary equivalent of relative-humanist Tee-Ball. You know: everybody's good, nobody's better than anybody else, and everybody gets a trophy. A chain restaurant's fine when you're in a strange town at dinnertime, or when reliability is more important that artistry. Maybe someday I'll go to that "New Orleans-style cafe," but not this trip.

So instead, we pulled into Two Step Restaurant & Cantina. I had only heard of the place because someone connected to the place had sent me an email a while back, inviting me to have lunch on the house. I declined that offer, on the probably spurious ground that someone might actually rely on these restaurant reviews, and the appearance of improper influence is every bit as inimical as actual improper influence.* So we had to pay for our lunches.

The place itself is in a couple of buildings surviving from one of the earliest settlements in the area, built about 1870 and subsequently joined together in a full re-modelling. The result is quite pleasant in concept and execution. You enter through a bar that is thoroughly Texan in appearance and atmosphere, if not in size, and have the choice of inside or outside seating in the dining area. The outdoors would be nice in the afternoon, except that the proximity of Loop 1604 makes me think the traffic noise may be too bothersome. (Nothing that a nice limestone wall wouldn't resolve....) On a late morning in November, though, it was just a little too cool to sit out there. But we sat by the large glass overhead doors that open onto the patio, so we got a lot of the effect without the chill or the traffic. Other parts of the dining room seemed as nice, being cozily dark and maintaining the bare limestone walls all round.

The service was as good as the atmosphere. We were greeted by a down-home-friendly someone who seemed to be the head honcho, offered a choice of seating, and given a quick run-down of things we might want to know. Our wants were looked after by a crew of uniformed staff (the uniform being house-logo T-shirts, and jeans): the guy from the front desk, and our particular waitress, Melissa, both of whom were attentive, helpful and charming; plus an assortment of less cheerful functionaries, who delivered this or that item and seemed to be in some kind of daze, as though they were not accustomed to daylight.

Our choices from the menu began with bacon-wrapped brisket-habanero stuffed jalapeños, an appetizer that comes with the warning of being "Super HOT!" They weren't. They were mildly piquant. The jalapeños themselves were large and slightly undercooked (which I liked, but Rick didn't), stuffed with the advertised mixture of shredded brisket with a dose of habanero that was too trivial to thrill. The whole thing was wrapped in a spiral of crisp bacon. Despite the disappointing lack of spicy heat, the overall taste and texture were both excellent.

Roland is on a special diet by his doctor's orders (the kind that would make me reconsider the morality of euthanasia, but it doesn't seem to phaze him), so he had only a house salad with vinaigrette dressing. He had no comment about it, but it looked very much like my salad, the "Texas-Sized Two-Step Salad," with a meat topping of choice: salmon, chicken or blackened catfish. I picked the salmon, which is billed as "cured house-smoked." I'm guessing that after they smoke it (which they do quite well) they keep it refrigerated at a very low temperature, because the meat is extremely dense and served very cold. Once I got past the jarring chill of it, I decided that it was done well, with a deep smoky flavour that complemented the innate salmon taste. There was enough of it, too, to satisfy. The greens underneath were reasonably fresh and varied, and included little bits of lagniappe like pumpkin seeds, corn, bacon and half a boiled egg. I chose the honey mustard dressing, which had the appearance and flavour of an in-house creation.

Rick's choice was the pulled pork sandwich, with french fries. It turned out to be a pretty good version of the classic sandwich, with plenty of tender lean pork and an excellent barbecue sauce, served on the side; and the bun was fresh and soft. The fries had an excellent flavour, and were fried to a nice crispness, though they were clearly of the pre-fab sort that arrive in a freezer pack already blanched.

Last city inspection: May 2012
26 demerits
It being five o'clock somewhere, Rick and I both indulged in frozen margaritas. These turned out to be somewhat pale and thick machined concoctions, with little flavour. And after the meal, Rick was unable to resist the offer of a slice of lemon-lime cheesecake. I thought it was reasonably good, with a nice tartness and a fair texture, though Rick considered it insufficiently creamy. The crust had coconut in it, which added an interesting element, and which I enjoyed. However, both these items — the drinks and the dessert — were seriously overpriced. The margaritas, at $7.25, were a good 40% more than I think would have been the norm for drinks of that size and modest quality; and the dessert, which I considered at the time "a four-dollar slice of cheesecake," was priced at $5.95, nearly 50% more than I think it should have been. The prices of the other items are only slightly above what I'm accustomed to paying for comparable food elsewhere; close enough to call the high side of reasonable; but those drink and dessert prices take the overall rating for value below an acceptable level, I'm sorry to say.

So I would recommend Two-Step only to people who don't drink, and who don't eat dessert. Other than that, it's pretty good.
* This is why I didn't go into politics.
My friend Roland thought I was too full of myself, and said that he'd have accepted the offer and then written an honest review. I would have liked to have done that, but can't honestly be sure it would be possible. So it set me back, I don't know, twenty bucks?

1 comment:

  1. What a refreshingly straightforward view of intellectual honesty! Makes me think I really CAN rely on your objectivity, even if you use too many words and too much sarcasm!


Add your own two cents here.