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Has this happened to you? Your first meal at a restaurant is enjoyable, maybe even in 5-star territory. You rave about the place to friends and family. You can't wait to go back. And when you do, it, well, kind of sucks. This happens to me more often than not. WTF?

Best Breakfast Ever
Best Breakfast Ever from Sunny Point Cafe in Ashville, NC

First of all, I dread eating somewhere new to me. It's a risk. You have to accept the possibility of failure, something I'm not always willing to do. Sure, I'll do it when I'm on vacation, but it's not like I have much of a choice. In more familiar haunts, though, the good dishes I know call out to me. It's when I get bored that I take the risk.

The First Visit
The First Visit

So, I walk in to a new place. I'm in borderline panic mode. What do I do? Do I seat myself? Who do I talk to? There's too much noise, I can't concentrate? Oh, yes, table for two. I sit down, grab the menu. What the hell does this mean? Why can't they call things by normal names? A burger for $12?!? Ga! What? Yes, I'll have the special. No, just a glass of water, wait, what's on tap?

Then the food comes, it looks wonderful and smells even better. And, damn, it's tasty. Before I know it, my plate is empty. If I'm not eating with my wife, I may even lick the plate.

Maybe that's it. I start with such low expectations that the meal can't help but seem good. When I return, though, I'm more familiar, better able to judge. I notice the lapses in service. This time I'm expecting good food and disappointed when it's not the best I've had.

I still take the risk, though. How else will I find the gems?

Cerritos Pupuseria, A Great Find
Cerritos Pupuseria, A Great Find

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Olive Garden: Not Bad for What It Is
Not Bad for What It Is

I plead guilty to yucking other people's yums. To wit: I have mercilessly mocked Olive Garden and those who think it fine dining. I realize now that it was wrong of me to do so. I committed the sin of expressing subjective opinion as objective fact. Olive Garden just couldn't be good food, but who am I to tell you what is or is not good? More to the point, though, how can I pass judgement on the place if I have not eaten there?

Clearly, I have never had the desire to eat at Olive Garden. I like real Italian food and felt that this place would be an abomination. The only reason why I went was the $50 gift card I had won in a raffle and a guilty sense that I should know that of which I rant. Now, any restaurant can be a good restaurant (supposing it's run with a modicum of skill and a desire to do a good job). The key is to set the right expectations. I prepared myself for this meal by repeating the mantra: "This is not an Italian restaurant, it is Corporate American cuisine made in the Italian idiom." Oh, and I promised I would not complain about over-cooked pasta.

Long story short, it wasn't that bad. The four of us ordered:

  • For an appetizer, we chose to create our own sampler and selected stuffed mushrooms, toasted raviolis and the calamari. Surprisingly, the squid was well cooked, with only a hint of rubberiness. The mushrooms were a tad on the greasy side, but edible. Nobody else seemed to like the raviolis, but I noshed big time.
  • We cycled 3 bowls of soup and an overly large serving of salad amongst us. The soups weren't bad, if a tad salty. The salad was an uninspired assembly of greens headlined by iceberg lettuce.
  • My youngest and I both ordered the special: 4 cheese stuffed pansotti (hers with chicken, mine Italian sausage). The pasta was (tss, tss!), er, um, drenched in a tomato-y cream sauce that actually went well with the sausage. The stuffed pasta seemed almost an afterthought that I wouldn't have missed.
  • My wife and eldest went with items from the appetizer menu. I questioned their selection of steamed mussels, but was proven wrong. The liquid was half way decent, even if overly salty (alas, this was turning into a theme here). They also ordered the Lasagna fritta, which was a disappointment. It looked nothing like the picture on the menu.

As I waddled out, I felt like we got our money's worth (the additional $40 it cost us), but don't think we'll be coming back. For that amount of money (or just a little more), we can get better food elsewhere. The place is not cheap unless you stick to water and the unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks.

One conclusion I reached, though, is that it's no wonder we're an obese nation:

  1. Portion sizes are gigantic. Those weren't plates, they were platters!
  2. Everything is drenched in cream and/or cheese. Why? Perhaps to cover up the fact that the pasta is (Dude! NO!), um, not the best.
  3. There is way too much salt. Telling sign that the dishes weren't made in house, but somewhere else and shipped here.

I felt miserable for the rest of the day, like I had swallowed an indigestible rock. I then made the mistake of looking up the nutritional value of the meal we just ate.

  • We consumed enough calories for the whole day for all four of us.
  • We ingested over 350 grams of fat! The equivalent to 7 Big Macs and 7 large orders of fries.
  • The salt intake was equivalent to the recommend daily amount for nearly 7 people.

I'm still in shock over witnessing a women who had to have been half my size who had ordered something that looked to be twice the size of my meal and she was furiously shaking salt on to it.

Now, I can rationalize crappy nutrition if the food is really good (bypassing for the moment the argument that good food doesn't need so much salt or fat) and I had a good time. This was not the case for me, yet others seem to truly enjoy the place. I won't try to talk them out of it. I would suggest, though, that they might try other places.

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Cerritos Pupuseria
Just a non-desrcript build on the side of the road

I drive by this place frequently, every time thinking I should give it a shot. I finally got around to it and am kicking myself for not doing so sooner.

This place is small, no more than 4 or 5 tables. Folks looked at me like I was lost. No, truly, I want to eat here! At first I was disheartened by the menu, which is populated with typical Mexican/Salvadoran fare that you'll see in any number of places through out DC, none of which is particularly adventurous. Then I noticed the white board. That's where the real food is listed.

Taco, Tamale and Pupusa
Taco, Tamale and Pupusa

I ordered a pork pupusa, beef tongue taco and a chicken tamale. This is, by far, the best pupusa I have ever had: lightly crispy on the outside while the contents had a creamy consistency. The flavors worked well with the slaw and salsa to make the sum of the whole greater than the parts. This alone was worth the trip.

When I mention tongue tacos to most people, they recoil in horror. They should not. There's nothing funky in the taste like, say, liver. It's just a lean piece of beef. And this taco is an excellent example of what can be done. With the pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime, I was in heaven. Yet again, this alone was worth the trip.

As for the tamale, I admit to some trepidation. It is really hard to find a well made tamale. Cerrito's does theirs well. The filing was more than just the single note of chicken, it included chunks of potato and green beans. One was just enough, any more and I would have been filled to bursting.

I will definitely make a return visit, and so should you. They are on Rt. 50, about 4 miles west of the intersection with Rt. 28.

Cerrito's Pupuseria
43137 John Mosby Hwy
Chantilly, VA 20152
(703) 327-0052

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Guapo's Fried Yucca
Guapo's Fried Yucca

How about lunch at Guapo's? That used to be an easy yes for me. I could eat their rotisserie chicken and fried yucca on a regular basis. The perfectly roasted chicken is juicy with a nicely seasoned, salty skin. The yucca, right out of the fryer, almost too hot to handle, is what a french fry yearns to be. This alone makes the trip worthwhile, but the menu is packed with excellent dishes. Their steak and pork ribs are tasty. They have a half way decent huevos rancheros, which is hard to find around here, especially as a non-breakfast item. Heck, even their steak and cheese sandwich is excellent.

Guapos Rotisserie Chicken
Guapos Rotisserie Chicken

I have been to their two locations in Manassass, both serve equally good food, but I find the ambiance at their Sudley road place to be calmer, not as elbow-to-elbow. It's a tad pricey for a place where you order and pick up your food from the counter, but, truly, this is worth it.

While up in the Rockville area, looking for a place to eat lunch during my work day, I stumble upon another Guapo's location. Goaded on by the ravenous growling of my stomach, my head filled with visions of poultry-flavored paradise, I open the door. I don't see a counter to place my order. A hostess offers to seat me. Confusedly, I follow her, slightly worried that I'm not smelling any chicken roasting. I flip through the menu, confirming my fears. They don't have chicken, steak or even yucca fries!! My only options are generic Tex-Mex with the requisite beans and cheese. Nothing you can't get at any number of chain restaurants in the region.

WTF? I look on their website, guaposrestaurant.com and learn that, indeed, there are two types of Guapos. Some marketing genius decided that, though they are different, they should be branded the same. Doesn't help that the naming of the types is confusing, too. The Tex-Mex Grills restaurants are the rotisserie locations, while the Fine Mexican Cuisine Restaurants serve Tex-Mex food. It also doesn't help that each location's signage uses a different vocabulary.

Long story short:

  1. Rotisserie (Herndon, Manassass and Woordbridge):
    Definitely worth a visit. Every item on the menu is good.
  2. Fine Mexican Cuisine (Maryland, DC and Arlington):
    I suppose, if you're a big fan of Tex-Mex and you have no other place to try.

How about lunch at Guapo's? Which one?

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A variety of factors interact to influence my opinion on an eating establishment, be it a taco wagon or an upscale restaurant.

The Food

Obviously! But it is much more than just how it tastes, although crappy food can never be balanced by other factors. While all of the elements that go into taste such as quality ingredients and skillful preparation matter greatly, I'm looking for more. How unique is it? I am more likely to drive 50 miles out of my way for some good carnitas than I would be for a great hamburger. How different is it? If you serve me something that I would have never thought of doing, and it's good, I will bow down in homage.

Service

I want prompt service that does not intrude on my dining experience. I don't want to be your best friend and I don't care what your name is. I do want a drink in my hand ASAP, though, and you better make sure my glass is never empty. If you provide good recommendations, you will make me a happy man. The food better be damn good to make up for bad service.

Ambiance

How I rate this one depends upon the restaurant's and the meal's context. It encompasses noise level, background music, the decor and clientele. I will make an effort to point out circumstances in which it might be better to visit a place. Sometimes what works for lunch just doesn't ring my bell at dinner. It is hard to overcome bad ambiance since I cannot enjoy a meal if I'm in a bad mood.

Money

The more expensive a place, the harder I'll grade it on the above factors. All else being equal, a $5 burger is always better than a $10 one.

The Ratings

I will try to visit a place multiple times before I write a review. Sometimes, though, a place is so bad, it only takes once. On the other hand, I would like to bring attention to place that has potential, so I'll flag it with Quick Bite and will follow up later after additional visits.

5 Stars: This is among the most amazing food you will ever eat. I will visit this place as often as I can so I can work my way, continuously, through the menu. You cannot get this rating unless the food is top notch and the ambiance perfectly matches the context. I will over look the occasional service slip, but not if it appears to be systemic.

4 Stars: This is a good place. You will get a very good meal here. This will always be a good fall back option when you're stuck for where to eat out. They offer enough good dishes to allow you to see past the items on the menu aren't that great, how loud the place is, or the fact that their prices are a tad too high.

3 Stars: Eh. I don't feel like I wasted my money, but I probably won't come back here. If you have no other options, I suppose. Likely, the low price allows you to stomach the less than stellar food or consistently bad service.

2 Stars: This place sucks. I finished my meal, but I was not enthused. This place must be avoided!

1 Stars: Why is this place in business? I didn't finish my meal either because the food was inedible or the service was catastrophically bad. I don't need to tell you to avoid this place, since it will probably be shut down soon.