Do you really need to be any good to survive in the restaurant business?
Or is the secret simply to avoid being bad? Many freezer-van-to-plate joints thrive on avoiding being truly bad. But sometimes it even seems smarter to avoid being good. Being good is scary. Being good raises expectations and demands consistency, which few outside the assembly line kitchens of Michelin star restaurants and McDonald's can achieve.
And if you are good and not one of the above? Well, smart aleck restaurant reviewers turn up and sneer all over the place. Worse, and far, far more frightening is that random people turn up and and start sneering all over the internet. So good can be very dangerous.
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Take Nachos here. Are they actively and smartly avoiding being good tonight? Erm … let's keep some of the suspense going for a while. In fact let's get in the mood for dinner first. It's a chilly Sunday evening and we climbed the stairs into a quiet restaurant with the world's biggest, loudest mural shouting "booyah!" at us from the back wall.
Beneath that gaudy Inca temple only three tables are occupied and we're in one of them. Yes, that's us beside the tastefully twinkling neon disco rope lights.
It's spacious in here and so dimly lit I can only vaguely make out what's on my plate. There are candles - though not on our table - but even they struggle to bring warmth to what, Inca temple aside, is a big and gloomy old space. It's not dim enough though to avoid seeing that certificate on the wall over there. And it's not one of those tacky TripAdvisor printouts everyone has, but a piece of paper announcing this place has been "hit-listed" by another publication.
Yes, at some point in the past someone thought it was really good hence the arrival of this potentially sneering reviewer at table nine tonight. Is it still good then?
Let's consider those starters. If they're not freezer-van food then they're a very good copy. We had ribs and stuffed chillis, as there really wasn't anything jumping out from a formulaic section of a somewhat scruffy and tired-looking menu. Ho-hum. But that's not really a surprise as the mains are apparently what it's all about in here. They are billed as not the usual Mexican restaurant fare, and that's true because the pabellon criollo I ordered is in fact Venezualan. It comes bubblingly hot in a soup bowl, all dark beef - though not shredded as it should be - with a rich sauce tasting of cumin, accompanied by coloured rice and perhaps not as many beans as expected. In fact the beans are on the side, not in the dish. Certainly not from a freezer van, then. Is it good? Er …
The mole poblano is Mexico's national dish and promises chilli, chocolate and spices ground together in a dark, thick sauce. It's certainly not thick, nor is it as expected taste-wise. But is it good? Er …
The camerones escondidos? Chicken breast stuffed with tiger prawns, topped with sauteed spinach and chipotle? There's no spinach at all, though they've gone off to look for it. I couldn't see or taste any smoky chipotle whatsoever and if those tiny rubber things are tiger prawns then I'm a Mexican. But it it any good? No.
None of it, though, is actually bad. The waiters, who are pleasant enough guys, will eventually take 20% off the bill after the kitchen hunted high and low for the missing spinach without success. The meat in the pabellon criollo was a bit chewy but the sauce itself was pleasant enough. Yes, the side salads are a bit 1970s, and I'm not in the least bit convinced that tonight anything but the most ordinary ingredients have gone into these most ordinary dishes.
But is the food actually bad? No.