Ethnic Food Nation
Piatto di Pasta and Taqueria La Fiesta
by Lee Lawrence
Long before Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, I wondered at the popularity of fast-food chains. Ethical and health issues aside, fast food doubles down on the most basic flavors--salt and sugar--at the expense of anything that might tickle a grown-up taste bud. And if it doesn't taste good, I figure, why bother eating it?
I understand that when we're busy or traveling, we might have fewer options, but often local ethnic restaurants serve food with real flavor--and maybe a few vegetables--for just a bit more money and a little more time. Their quality may not always be flawless, but when I'm looking for a quick meal that still tastes like it's connected to the earth, I go the ethnic route. This month, I explored a pair of small places on the city's ethnically rich east side, the new Piatto di Pasta and the recently revived Taqueria La Fiesta.
Piatto di Pasta sits in a recessed corner of the lonely strip mall at Ellsworth and Stone School roads that houses the Mediterranean Market, a few odd shops, and a handful of restaurants. Its owner, Michael DeCola, bills Piatto di Pasta as an Italian restaurant, but really he serves the Italian-American cuisine that evolved out of the early immigrants' accommodation to their new home: big portions of pasta with red sauce, meats, and cheeses. (Wallpapering Piatto di Pasta's order counter, a blown-up photo of New York's pre-automotive Mulberry Street in Little Italy illustrates this immigrant world.) Although the menu suggests there's a choice of two red sauces--traditional marinara or spicy Sicilian--I didn't notice much difference between them; both have a clean, light tomato flavor. In one form or another, tomato sauce dresses everything but the gabagool sandwich, which is Piatto di Pasta's version of the Italian sub, or hoagie. Stuffed with salami, capicola, provolone, cabbage, onions, and tomatoes and sprinkled with house-made Italian dressing, it's a pleasant rendition of this East Coast standard. The buns aren't phenomenal, but
the staff bakes all sandwiches after assembly, melting the cheese, crisping the bread, and making them infinitely more savory. The vegetarian sandwich--filled with breaded eggplant, roasted peppers, red onions, tomato sauce, and provolone--suffers from too few vegetables, but the Italian sausage option, featuring a wonderfully spicy link from Sparrow Market, is delicious. Full subs can be had anytime; at lunch, Piatto di Pasta also offers a half-sandwich with a cup of soup, a bargain at $6.95.
Lunch also features a pasta bowl--your choice from a range of shapes--with one of the tomato sauces for $5, or $7.95 with a choice of meat. One afternoon I had cheese ravioli with the spicy Sicilian sauce and three large tasty meatballs, each stuffed with a garlic clove. A small mound of garlicky sauteed zucchini garnished the aluminum take-out container (the element of "fast food" I like the least). Another day my husband and I enthusiastically shared DeCola's traditional lasagna--which comes only in a dinner portion--stuffed with rich shredded, not ground, beef, cheeses, and marinara sauce. Accompanying the enormous portion of baked pasta was a small salad, another nice mound of sauteed vegetables, and a hunk of bread--not bad for $11.95. The salad was an iceberg lettuce composition; though it came with the delicious peppery vinaigrette that enlivens the gabagool sandwich, I'll opt for soup next time. For those who prefer, the lasagna also comes in chicken and vegetarian versions.
Despite painted murals, the atmosphere at Piatto di Pasta is still a bit stark--it's been open only since September--probably inducing more take-out orders than eat-in ones for the four tables.
Over at Taqueria La Fiesta on Packard near Carpenter, new owners George Roman and Estella Cardenas have splashed a bit more color on the walls and hung a few more pictures. Food eaten in house comes on plastic plates rather than foil or foam. And a server, always friendly, comes to the table, though I can't say he or she is always efficient, organized, and quick.
In the past, my husband and I, separately and together, have spent a lot of time traveling around Mexico. There, a taqueria is the ultimate fast food joint, usually serving only tacos, and often from only one type of animal--all the bits, from nose to tail, skin to entrails. You order which bits you like, in however many tacos you can eat--one, two, or a dozen. They arrive garnished with chopped onion and cilantro, and the regional salsa is waiting on the table, so you can tailor the tacos to your liking.
Taqueria La Fiesta goes beyond simple tacos, trading a taqueria's swift service for a much wider and more interesting menu. The best of its food, like all of Mexico's, is well spiced, sometimes in the way chiles add heat, but more often full flavored from the addition of well-chosen herbs and spices, citrus juices, lard, pastes and rubs, roasted tomatoes and other vegetables, corn masa, pickled vegetables, and fresh garnishes.
We applauded, for instance, the lunch platters of birria Jalisco (marinated beef in the regional style of Jalisco state), a dark, deep, intense stew, and guisados de puerco, chunks of pork and potatoes braised in a light and savory red sauce. A special of tacos al pastor--corn tortillas filled with tart, marinated, slow-cooked pork--was also tasty, and the menudo (tripe soup), though not outstanding, was hearty and satisfying. I also enjoyed huaraches de nopal, cactus leaves stuffed with cheese, breaded in masa, fried, and topped with a sieved tomato sauce, light yet flavorful.
Besides lunch, the taqueria also serves breakfast. Mexicans appreciate eggs in the morning, and the menu lists a number of options. When we traveled in Mexico, my husband studiously ordered huevos rancheros (eggs ranch style) wherever we went, from state to state, mountain to sea; he always got two fried eggs, but he never got the same sauce twice. "Salsa ranchera" as a single idea or recipe apparently doesn't exist. At Taqueria La Fiesta I would guess that the sauce covering the huevos rancheros is the same as that featured on the huaraches de nopal. The sauces on my huevos divorciados (translation obvious), one described as red, the other green, were the same two tomatillo salsas, each flavored with a different chile, that came to the table with every meal. I found both of them to be tart and uninspired. Preferable was the fresh salsa--chopped tomato, onion, chiles, and cilantro--that usually came with chips as we were seated. Incredibly bland from a lack of salt or any other noticeable flavoring agent were the runny refried pinto beans that accompanied every meal. If you remember, order whole beans instead--they don't have any more flavor but do have better texture--and stir in some of that fresh salsa.
Another surprisingly insipid dish was one day's special, chicken mole. I had recently made a red mole for a holiday party, a reminder that although there are as many versions of mole sauces as there are salsas rancheras, they are, by the fact of their ingredients--dried and/or fresh chiles, spices, garlic and onion, sometimes vegetables or seeds or chocolate--not typically dull. And instead of enrobing chunks of chicken, Taqueria La Fiesta's mole drowned tasteless, overcooked meat shredded to the consistency of baby food--particularly disagreeable. Another special, garnachas Veracruzanas, more tasteless shredded chicken atop pan-fried corn tortillas with tomato sauce, lettuce, and sour cream, was simply boring. A quesadilla of rajas, grilled poblano peppers and onions, was also--I have to use the words again, because poblanos are usually quite flavorful--surprisingly dull. But the one filled with mushrooms in a pasilla (a type of dried chile) sauce was earthy and delicious. The latter, though not on the menu, came at Estella Cardenas's suggestion, and I would suggest requesting an entire order of them.
Another suggestion, from George Roman, was also excellent: pineapple-coconut dessert tamales, a special one afternoon. These tamales had no filling; rather, the pineapple and coconut were incorporated into the masa dough. They were lightly sweet, fruity, and crumbly. A bit of crema as garnish would have been heavenly. Be sure to wash down your breakfast or lunch with a giant glass of agua de Jamaica, cold sweetened hibiscus tea, or horchata, a milky drink made from ground raw rice and canela (Mexican cinnamon). Both are very refreshing when the mouth is on fire.
As at Piatto di Pasta, nothing at Taqueria La Fiesta is very expensive; beef fajitas top the list at $11, but most items range from $5.50 to $7.75. At both places it may be hard to find food suitable to eat while driving, but is that how you really want to eat? More important, each offers tasty real food, served quickly enough and in all cases far superior to anything the corporate chains toss through their take-out windows.
Piatto di Pasta
4079 Stone School Rd.
Lunches $5.00-$7.95; sandwiches $10.95; pastas $11.95-$12.95
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (May open earlier for coffee in the near future.) Closed Sun.
Taqueria La Fiesta
4060 Packard Rd.
Breakfasts $5.95-$6.50; tacos, burritos, quesadillas, huaraches, tamales $5.50-$7.75; lunch platters $6.95-$11
Tues.-Sat. 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
[Originally published in February, 2012.]