Friday, February 27, 2009
Out in Astoria (Viva El Mariachi; 33-11 Broadway)
The Mexican restaurants along Broadway in Astoria aren’t going to win any awards for ambiance. Garishly lit, indifferently decorated, and resolutely utilitarian, they won’t transport you out of your everyday life -- even if mariachi music is playing, and even if the name of the particular restaurant you are in suggests that the place exists to celebrate such music.
But there wasn't much music happening when we visited Viva El Mariachi, just a few desultory songs from a jukebox. The restaurant's name is utterly arbitrary as far as we could tell. There was, however, a lot of energy in the restaurant, as it had been recruited to serve as the somewhat unlikely host to an Out Astoria meet-up, which was just beginning to break up when we arrived. That it would be chosen for such an event is a testimony to its perfectly nondescript nature -- the restaurant is the lair of no particular group of regulars so far as we could tell, and so it’s open to be claimed by anyone for an hour -- but no more. There are about a dozen tables, some of which are on an elevated platform behind a wooden railing. We're not sure of the purpose of this barrier arrangement -- it seems to make service a bit more awkward than it need be (and created sight lines to nothing in particular).
We ordered tacos and a steak special. The tacos were a touch better than the ones procurable at the El Rey del Taco cart on 30th Avenue, which is no small feat. They came on a plate with limes and radishes, which makes for a more pleasant dining experience than jamming them down from out of a piece of aluminum foil as you walk home from the subway. (We're eager for the taco truck's storefront to open, however.)
The special, a paillard of steak sautéed with a flavorful jalapeno sauce, tangy crema, and nachos (yes, nachos) was delicious. The sharp zest of the sauce and accompanying limes collide with the steak, which managed to stay juicy despite its thinness; the crema kept the mix from overwhelming. We've never heard of sautéing nachos, and it's probably a candidate for This is Why You're Fat, but hell, it worked. It was also enormous, serving as lunch and dinner the next day.
Assuming fresh ingredients are being used, this sort of simple, straightforward Mexican food is somewhat difficult for professionals to get horribly wrong -- not that other restaurants don’t manage to mess it up (see Taco Fresco, which happily falls outside of our rules for eating at every restaurant in Astoria). That also means it's equally hard to make it truly outstanding. But "outstanding" is not really a reasonable expectation for the utilitarian Viva El Mariachi. Instead it exudes a basic reliability that is far too easy to take for granted; it can make you delighted and satisfied with a meal even when you haven't psyched yourself up for something spectacular.
Price: $20 for the whole meal, including bottled sodas and tip
Will we go again? It's in our top Mexican choices -- absolutely