Gringo Could Use a Refresher Course on Mexican

Aug 8, 2013 at 4:00 am
Gringo's colorful taco salad is made with corn tortillas, black beans, jack cheese, Mexican crema, cilantro-buttermilk dressing and a slew of vegetables. Slideshow: Inside Gringo in the Central West End
Gringo's colorful taco salad is made with corn tortillas, black beans, jack cheese, Mexican crema, cilantro-buttermilk dressing and a slew of vegetables. Slideshow: Inside Gringo in the Central West End Jennifer Silverberg

Oh, Gringo, I wanted to like you — really, I did. Your beachy vibe makes me want to waste many an afternoon on your patio, day-drinking margaritas in flip-flops. Your irreverent name shows that you do not intend to take yourself too seriously, and your gracious and knowledgeable staff helps to create a fun and inviting atmosphere. There's just one problem — one very large problem...

Occupying prime real estate on the quintessential Central West End corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues, Gringo has transformed the blue-blooded space of the former Rothschild's Antiques into an oasis of tranquilidad, reminiscent of a beachside grill in Cabo San Lucas. The corals and blues of the tables and chairs, whitewashed interiors and lofted, airy ceilings make diners want to languidly gaze out of the wraparound windows for hours as the world passes them by. It's a beautiful location, a fun concept, and it has a fantastic tequila selection.

So why have I not mentioned the food?

I get Gringo's "we're a bunch of white guys doing Mexican" self-deprecating whimsy. And it's certainly not a prerequisite that Gringo's creators Chris Sommers and Frank Uible be of the same ethnicity as the food they feature. (Neither one hails from Naples, and their Pi restaurants are a tremendous success.) However, one would think that the "gringo" schtick would give the venture an extra incentive to get it right so as not to turn the joke back on itself. It is apparent that a significant amount of creativity went into the menu development. It's just a shame that the result of such efforts is lackluster at best and completely misses the mark at worst.

Slideshow: Inside Gringo in the Central West End

Gringo's menu features casual, beach-shack fare with a special focus on an eclectic taco selection. Always a sucker for housemade guacamole, I was particularly impressed with Gringo's tableside preparation, making it a participatory event by allowing diners to doctor the dip to their spice and texture preferences. On both of my visits, the guacamole was fair; avocados were ripe and creamy, and the sprinkling of cotija cheese was a fun way to provide seasoning (maybe a bit too much seasoning in this case). Although the guacamole was fairly salty, it was otherwise pretty bland, lacking spice and zip. I am surprised at how little kick the generous amount of jalapeños, onions and poblanos added, and the absence of tomatoes and skimpy use of fresh lime made it all the blander.

Calling the shrimp cóctel "ceviche" is like calling deli ham "prosciutto." When I think of ceviche, I think of light, citrusy and delicate seafood — a refreshing-to-the-palate seaside dish. What Gringo serves instead is shrimp cocktail without the horseradish, mixed with some avocado and radishes. It tasted as if the kitchen took boiled shrimp, tossed it in some Heinz chile sauce and added a few vegetables for good measure. The description said there was an orange component, although this was not at all apparent. In Gringo's defense, the menu did clearly reference the presence of Mexican cocktail sauce on the dish. I am not sure, though, how something can be both shrimp cocktail and ceviche at the same time. Even if the kitchen was going for more of a shrimp cocktail effect, the result just wasn't good.

Being that Gringo trumpets tacos as its specialty, I made it a point to try nearly every one on the menu. My tasting began with the classic al pastor, comprised of slow-cooked pork, pineapple and chiles. The pork was dry and bland but somewhat resuscitated by the pineapple and grilled red onions. The fried fish taco had some good heat. The breading was light and flaky, and the garnish of toasted pepitas (squash seeds) was a nice touch. Yet the overall taste was quite dry from the generous accoutrement of Napa cabbage. While the menu said that the cabbage was supposed to be a slaw, it did not seem to be tossed in anything, thus making the overall effect of the taco rough and desperately in need of some moisture. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the accompanying chipotle crema to mitigate this factor. (My dining companion jokingly remarked that perhaps we could employ the competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi's technique and dunk the taco in water to make it go down easier. I suggested we use the margarita.)

The wild-caught shrimp taco was terribly fishy, and the seasoning blend tasted more like potting soil than guajillo mojo (a mild chile sauce, typically made with an olive oil, paprika, garlic and cumin base). Even the tasty avocado-tomato salsa and arugula couldn't save the day. Probably the best taco offering was the "Gringo" (thankfully, its namesake didn't fail), a crowd-pleasing offering consisting of deliciously seasoned local ground beef, lettuce, tomato, jack cheese and Mexican crema. Sure, it's nothing different than one could find at a chain Mexican restaurant, but the moistness and warm spice of the beef made it the best-executed taco that I sampled.

See also:
- Are insects the new superfood?

At this point, I am sure that readers with any prior knowledge of Gringo are waiting to see if I tried the chapulines, Gringo's ode to entomophagy (bug-eating for those without fingertip access to Wikipedia). Now, I have no problem with eating bugs — in this case, grasshoppers. In fact, I predict that diners will be seeing more of them on menus, not for shock value, but as the next big superfood. They contain more protein and less fat than "conventional" meat, and the carbon footprint associated with their production is next to nil. My problem with Gringo's chapulines taco is that it was unpalatably salty, tasting like burnt zoysia grass steeped in soy sauce. I understand that the culinary team at Gringo may have been working under the assumption that they needed to cover the taste of the grasshoppers to make it more approachable, but doing so in such a heavy-handed manner only exacerbated the flavors. Thankfully, $1 of the amount spent on each chapulines taco is donated to a local food bank. (I would have gladly contributed the full $4.50 price tag rather than suffer through another bite.)

As much as I have harped on the negatives, there were some successes during my visits to Gringo. The obligatory chips and salsa, so often a throwaway at Mexican restaurants, were actually quite tasty. The chips were fresh and kicked up with a light chile dusting, and the salsa had a warm, smoky spice. The street corn "off the cob" was a clear hit, tasting like a roasty, Mexican-spiced version of creamed corn, and the dessert of churros (Mexican-style doughnuts) was excellent, elevated by the cinnamon-almond sweetness of the horchata dipping sauce. And of course, a visit to Gringo would not have been complete without sampling its eponymous margarita — the housemade sour and generous pour of Exotico Blanco tequila made it the highlight of my visits.

While my experiences at Gringo were not offensive (well, some parts of them were), overall, I was completely underwhelmed. Are tasty chips and salsa and fresh, potent margaritas enough to make a visit worthwhile? Perhaps. A great patio and strong cocktails can go far. However, I expect much bigger things from the people who produce pizza that has earned accolades from none other than President Obama. The skeleton is there — a prime location, a talented staff and a creative menu. Should Gringo get its execution right, it has the potential to be more than just a pretty face. The proprietors have proven they can do it with Pi — here's to hoping that they can do it again.