Everything good about the newest Salsa Grille on YMCA Park Drive was also everything that was bad about it.
Owners Chris and Jerry Rongos got the look right on this Salsa Grille Northeast for sure. It is clean, modern and streamlined so the lunch crowd gets in, orders and gets to eating quickly.
It is a far cry from the taco bar at George's International Market on Broadway where the brothers' chain has its roots.
The menu has the same fresh, tasty ingredients that made the old taco bar a hit and what led to the growth of the brand.
But being so much like the bigger chains also means some of the things that made the old taco counter – and the folks working it – so great are missing in this new very corporate setting.
No matter what entrée you choose, the best part of your meal will come with it. Salsa Grille's chips are just OK, but the salsa bar makes them a must-have.
There are 10 varieties and you can have as many and as much as you want.
My favorites are the sweet grilled pineapple/chipotle and the fiery-roasted habenero and tomato. But the ranchera salsa is also a guilty pleasure because even though it doesn't have exotic ingredients and is pretty straightforward, I kept going back to it bite after bite.
Also, by the time I ordered my last entrée – a carnitas quesadilla – that salsa bar taught me to pass on the rather drab-looking – and mediocre – guacamole, which costs a little more because the avocado salsa from the bar is just as good.
The carnitas could not have been better on this bursting quesadilla. The pork was tender and super moist, and the makeup of the sandwiched tortilla was decent so the cheese was not overwhelmed. It was, however, oddly cut into thin strips instead of customary triangles making it hard to pick up without stuff falling out of it.
A burrito was a better choice for handling and my chorizo burrito was satisfying thanks, again, to the good balance of ingredients. But, if you like your burrito a little personalized, be ready for a fight.
As I watched mine being made and was asked what kind of cheese I wanted – shredded or roasted poblano queso – I decided I wanted a little of each. It would cost an extra 75 cents, and I was fine with that until I watched them add it.
An employee carefully sprinkled a finite amount of shredded and then meticulously scooped out just one small ladle of cheese. After two bites of my burrito in which I could not even detect that queso sauce, I headed back to the counter and asked if I could have a little more in a little condiment cup.
“You have to pay for extra cheese,” I was told in a not-so-friendly tone.
“But I already paid for extra cheese and wanted a little more because I can't even taste the queso,” I said.
That is when I was told I was given the proper measurement of cheese according to their guidelines and any more would cost me more. It is not like I was trying to blanket my burrito with cheese, I just wanted what I thought was a fair amount.
The most frustrating part was that after finally bargaining my way into about a tablespoon of extra cheese sauce, I quickly realized it wasn't the amount of queso that was the problem, it was the quality of that queso.
The sauce had the consistency of water instead of being thick and gooey like it should be so it washed away among all of the other ingredients.
Salsa Grille's sour cream suffered from the same fate. It was more of a crema, though good Mexican crema is much thicker than the watery stuff I received. An employee generously drizzled it all over the top of my rice bowl, but it basically disappeared as soon as I started mixing it with my fork.
Good, stiff sour cream is what was needed – especially for a burrito – to supply cooling bites here and there among the spicy ingredients.
Speaking of spicy ingredients, I did love how finely diced the jalapeños were. They were spread easily throughout and gave each bite a little zip whereas sliced jalapeños can be too much and ruin a bite.
My ground beef bowl was still enjoyable though I again had to keep coaching those preparing it to add more shredded lettuce and corn.
The rice – I favored the yellow with bits of charred poblanos over the red, tomato-spiked version – was al dente and the black beans and pinto beans were spot on.
If you like beef tacos, pass on the tough and dry carne asada and go for the moist, hearty barbacoa. There was enough meat in each and they were not stingy with the cilantro or onions when I ordered mine traditional style. I asked for sour cream on one of them and this time it was much thicker and better.
The crispy tortilla bowl version of the Fiesta Taco Salad was also a great choice. It was made with nice salad greens instead of shredded lettuce and the edible bowl was another vessel for my many cups of salsa.
I had mine with the ancho-chile chicken and it was way better than the chicken most taco places offer. It was moist, well-seasoned and a very high-quality choice.
The fideo and chicken-tortilla soups were anything but high quality.
The fideo had a flavorful red broth, but the noodles had cooked away to mush, and it was pretty useless. There were also a few dark specks of a green pepper that also had cooked away to mush.
The tortilla soup was even worse. It had stewed chicken swimming in a rich, red broth, overcooked pepper bits and just a few mushy tortilla strips. The menu touted cojita cheese, but I couldn't find it.
I made it a little better by crunching up some chips into it, but it was still boring.
With all of those fresh, vibrant ingredients lining the assembly line, one would think some raw onions or fresh peppers and cilantro would be a standard garnish.
And hey, how about a little shredded cheese?
Seems like that wouldn't be too hard. I bet I could ask for it next time.
But if I do, I know it will cost extra.
Restaurant: Salsa Grille Northeast
Address: 5709 YMCA Park Drive E.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Entrees ($6.50), queso dip ($2.19), soup ($3.99), a la carte extras (rice $1.50, beans $3, guacamole $1.50), a la carte chips ($2.99), a la carte salsa ($2.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Salsa Grille Northeast
Out of a possible five