I guess it’s been a while since I wrote a full review; I do have other things on my mind besides food & wine, you know. Well, okay, no I don’t, unless you count Rubber, this new French horror flick about, per FirstShowing.net, “an angry killer tire that roams the California desert exploding people’s heads with psychic energy out of revenge.” Woohoo! But that’s neither here nor there; the point is I figured I’d give you a little taste of this & that in the interim.
Rila Café is tucked away behind East Europe Market, which in turn sits quietly behind the Hooters on S. Colorado, not even trying to compete with that. It looks like your average sandwich shop, bad lighting, counter service & all. But the menu belies the banal appearance, laden with homestyle Balkan classics—cevapi, sudjukice & cold yogurt soup—plus adorable ESL typos like “cimanon” & “vaggies.”
Whether the actual cooking surpasses the average is not for me to say based on 1 visit. I can say that one didn’t live up to my desperately high expectations.
Take the burek, a meat-filled phyllo-based pastry.
It wasn’t bad—flaky, the beef well-spiced—but it wasn’t fresh either, & I don’t care if you’re in the Eastern bloc or on the Western front, there are very few pastries in this world that actually benefit from staleness.
I’ve had far worse salads than this so-called shepherd salad
tossed with red & yellow peppers, onions, eggs, feta, cucumbers & parsley, but the jarred mushroom slices were a bummer, as was the bottled dressing, as was the fact that the promised ham & tomatoes were AWOL.
Still, I can’t get the place out of my head: my hopes remain high for the sausages (hey, do those come with vaggies? And will this little aside get me firewalled as a porn site? Sigh, probably).
BOA on W. 32nd is as hard to figure as its awkward name. The space is odd—tiny & much more sleekly upscale than I imagined with its crimson walls & clean lines—leading to a much bigger back patio; by comparison, the staff is odd—young & way casual in dress & manner, they seem to have wandered in from the coffeehouse down the block; & the half-Asian, half-Mexican menu—not, note, the Latin-Asian fusion that made such a splash back in the 1990s (& continues at places like Zengo today), but a Latin-Asian division—is certainly odd, at least without a romantic backstory to make some sense of it, you know, à la Frida Kahlo & Isamu Noguchi.
Then again, maybe it’s me & my perspective that’s odd, because, combing online reviews, I find myself in a tiny minority who didn’t think much of the little I tried, which seemed, indeed, to be running on half power, overly sweet, underly spicy & just not particularly interesting.
Take the cilantro-lime shrimp, which certainly tasted fine because it was fresh & crispy, but not because there was anything cilantro-&-limey about it. The 2 dipping sauces were virtually indistinguishable, your basic sweet chili stuff, emphasis on the sweet, de-emphasis on the chili.
I thought I wanted a salad until I weighed the options, which also looked a lot alike: greens, chicken or beef, & not much else: the most basic of veggies, plus a condiment or two to make them nominally Mexican.
So I got kung pao tofu, which came with rice, a veggie egg roll, spicy mustard & more sweet chili sauce.
Again, it was okay—nothing wrong with the technique, but then, it was a stir-fry, which I could’ve made at least as well at home, adding the same Korean hot sauce that came from the jar on the table to provide the only spice the dish had (aside, again, from sugar).
At least the sauce looked about right for the Vietnamese rice noodle bowl, which itself looked about right, which, I realize, isn’t saying much—I’m not reviewing here so much as casually observing.
Same goes for the chile relleno stuffed with zucchini & Jack, however California-lite, although it was the beans that really caught my eye; soupy & studded with smoked pork, they were the 1 item that had a real-deal air about them.
To reiterate ad nauseum, this is mainly 1st-impression eyeballing on my part—educated, granted, but precisely because I’m educated in reviewing I know when to tell you to take my word for something & when to encourage you to make of my word what you will. Let me put it this way: based on 1 experience, I’d just as soon fulfill my next craving for Asian or Mexican food at a place that concentrates solely on Asian or Mexican food (see, for instance, below). But it takes at least 2 bingetastic visits, & preferably 3 or 4 normal visits, to really get to the truth of a kitchen. For that reason alone, to challenge my own immediate assumptions, I suspect I’ll be back soon.
Conversely, there’s nothing I could say about El Taco de Mexico you don’t already know: for hardcore, no-bull comida cooked by hardcore, no-bull muchachas, this is about as good as it gets. Everything, including this burrito with carnitas & green chile, is just as it should be, every time, no more & no less: generations of home-cooking tradition are palpable in each bite.
But maybe there’s one bright little light I can shed: last time I was there, Karla Sutra & I watched 1 of the women in the kitchen hacking with a giant knife at a giant block, about 2’x2’x1′, wrapped in butcher paper. When she’d sliced through, I saw what it was: lard, pure white lard. Otherwise known as the right stuff in the right place at the right time.