Tag Archives: review

Chipotle Mexican Grill

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After my Salsarita’s disappointment, two three folks have recommended Chipotle. One was the dad of one of my students, and he put it like this: “If you’ve had Qdoba and Salsarita’s and are sort of okay with them, you’ll love Chipotle.”

Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of Salsarita’s, I am okay with Qdoba, probably mostly because I usually order the nachos instead of their lackluster burritos. At any rate, according to the aforementioned student dad, this meant I’d love Chipotle. I was intrigued.

I love Mexican food more than perhaps you’re supposed to love any sort of food, period. More than you’re supposed to love all food combined, even. It’s my fave. Thai is definitely in the running, but Mexican has my heart. It can be done way, way wrong, though. Trying out a new Mexican restaurant and finding out that it’s mediocre is almost more disappointing than just choosing a restaurant you know is crappy to begin with — because your expectations are just so high. I was really hoping Chipotle wasn’t going to be a huge disappointment.

Mike and I decided to give it a try and visited one in Raleigh (I figure they’re all the same, guys). One of the things we loved immediately was how simple the menu is. They tell you what dishes they can make and what meats they have, and you pick a combo of the two. Mike chose a steak burrito, and I chose a chicken burrito . . . until I saw the pork.

The best picture of my burrito I could get in the dim lighting! Bah.

Pork, like Mexican, can be done way wrong. But it was clear that this pork was way right: it was dripping with porky juiciness in its little bin. I changed my order (the dude making my burrito hadn’t put the meat on yet and was very nice about my indecision) and voila — carnitas it was! Add to that some black beans, chunky medium salsa, lime rice, sour cream, and cheese, and we were ready to eat. Well, after we ordered a bag o’ chips and some guacamole, that is. I’d heard their chips were fantastic.

Before taking a bite, I went to get my fountain drink and immediately decided Chipotle was a fantastic place — can you guess what I found? FOUNTAIN COKE ZERO. Dear every restaurant everywhere, please go ahead and get fountain Coke Zero. It is seriously superior to every other soft drink. Thanks! Love, Julie.

Mike’s steak burrito

I made my now-gleeful way back to my seat and dug in. Mike’s burrito was good, but I wasn’t huge on whatever they’d marinated the steak in. My burrito on the other hand — with that slightly sweet pork flavor and the kickin’ chunky salsa — was delectable. The chips were crisp and tasted like they’d been spritzed with lime (this extra step is definitely what made them wonderful). Dunked in the good-but-not-On-the-Border-good gaucamole, they were the perfect side. All in all, we enjoyed the meal a lot.

My meal (Carnitas Burrito, Chips & Guac, and a soda) cost $11.53 — a little high, but not too bad I guess. Mike’s was cheaper with no chips and a water — probably around $7, but I don’t remember exactly.

I’ll continue to visit Qdoba for some nachos (they’re delish, y’all; forget the rest of the menu) because it’s close by, but I’m excited to go to Chipotle again soon.

Charlotte Spoon Rating: 3.5 out of 5 spoons

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La Taqueria Unica

So this is unique. I’m about to write a review of some food I don’t know the name of. I actually have no idea what I ate. Um . . . but it was good?

It was really, really good in fact.

I’d always intended to visit one of the Taquerias Unica, but had misgivings — particularly about whether or not I’d be able to order or if there’d be an insurmountable language barrier. I took French in high school and college, y’all. I can do French — kind of.

I think the only words I know in Spanish are my colors and the days of the week, and I wouldn’t even trust those. So unless something on the menu was called a “Miércoles Rojo,” I was gonna be out of luck. (Full disclosure: turns out I do not know the days of the week in Spanish, since I just had to look them up as a reminder).

I was dogsitting beside La Taqueria Unica one day, though, and it was so tempting. I swallowed my anxiety and went in. I was greeted by a jukebox, loud music playing from a TV set to a Spanish station, and a sweet girl behind the counter ready to take my order. I looked at the menu, but shouldn’t have bothered, because it was in Spanish. No dishes called Miércoles Rojo, unfortunately. I set the menu aside and asked the girl behind the counter, “What’s the best thing on the menu?” She gave me a helpless, apologetic smile and I felt like a clod for making her feel sorry when I’m the one who went in expecting the entire Hispanic community to cater to my language.

I tried again: “Just give me anything. Just give me your favorite” (favorite’s a cognate, right? Or is it?). She must have understood some of that, because she took my money (I honestly don’t remember how much, but do remember that it was reasonable — maybe $9?) and then I sat and waited a bit, hoping that there was, indeed, food coming. Sure enough, after a few minutes, she handed me a bag and, after thanking her, I tried to scramble out of the restaurant inconspicuously, still a tad bit embarrassed.

And that’s how I arrived at my apartment with a mystery lunch.

A delicious, delicious mystery lunch. Whatever it was, it was stuffed full of juicy steak and peppers (the sort that you’d never find at a Salsarita’s type place), covered in a cheesy, creamy sauce, and accompanied by tangy guacamole. A fresh tomato and lettuce were bright and cool with the warm, heavy meal. The whatever-it-was (burrito?) was huge and filling. Finally, a tasty, quick fast-food Mexican restaurant!

My goal now is to learn how to say, “Give me whatever’s your favorite” in Spanish so that I can go back! Spanish speakers, want to help me out?

<politics>P.S. If you’re about to leave a comment insisting that Spanish-speaking members of our community should be bilingual, I sure hope you’re bilingual or are gonna think twice about clicking that “submit” button. The USA has no official language, y’all, and just because some individual states have set one doesn’t make it any easier to learn a new language while you work, raise kids, and take care of your home. You give it a try, why don’t you, and then we’ll talk. </politics>

Charlotte Spoon Rating: 4 out of 5 spoons

ETA: Three Charlotte Spooners have helped us out with the language barrier (and yes, so far, everyone agrees that this is some sort of burrito):

  • “Lo siento, no hablo espanol. Quiero comer algo que se gusta” means literally, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. I would like to eat something that you enjoy.”
  • “Lo siento, pero hablo espanol solamente un poco” means, “I’m sorry but I only speak a little Spanish.”
  • “Me gustaria su comida favorita del menu por favor” means, “I would like your favorite from the menu, please.”

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina

My blog analytics allow me to see the search terms people used to find the Charlotte Spoon. My two favorite today:

“light eating in Charlotte”
“smothered pork chops”

Good to know we have varied interests around here.

After church this morning I decided it was finally time to try Salsarita’s. I’d heard a lot about it but hadn’t had a chance to visit.

Nothing jumped out at me from the menu. All the usual suspects were there (burritos, tacos, quesadillas, nachos, taco salads, all available with a choice of chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp).

After a raging internal debate (this is not unusual for me when it comes to restaurant menus), I went with a small grilled chicken burrito. As I went down the assembly line (identical to Qdoba’s, if you’ve ever been there), I asked for: rice, black beans, medium salsa, added queso, extra shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and a little cilantro. It was a super quick process — all wrapped up and ready to go in a few minutes flat.

Flat . . . hm . . . yeah. That’s kind of how I’d describe the eating experience. How do you go wrong with that list of ingredients? It sounds flavorful and bold, right? Well, it wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t very good. The rice was a flavorless filler, the beans added a “goo” factor from not being drained enough, and I don’t think there was enough salsa or queso or chicken to overcome these downfalls. The result was a “just okay,” kind of plain burrito. At $6.22 for a meal that’s on the small side for me, it wasn’t expensive, but I’d definitely expect a better flavor.

It’s hard to rate a restaurant on one eating experience, so I want to disclaim. I’ve heard many folks say they didn’t like Qdoba’s burritos much either (too much rice is the most common complaint). I love Qdoba’s delicious chicken nachos covered in calorie-laden queso, though, so maybe if I shopped around on the Salsarita’s menu, I’d find something similarly satisfying.

Speaking of Qdoba’s, though, does it seem to anyone else that Salsarita’s and Qdoba’s are kind of the same restaurant with a different name and different decor? Same assembly-line concept, almost the same menu, similar pricing.

One thing I do have to complain about regarding Salsarita’s menu is the extra charge for queso. Without queso, that burrito would have been even less impressive. Guess how much adding queso costs. JUST GUESS. Adding queso costs an entire dollar extra. And you should have seen the tiny, miserly spoonful of queso my extra dollar got me! I almost wanted to say, “Really, that’s a dollar-worth of queso?!” Seriously, Salsarita’s, that’s annoying.

A big ol’ huge plus to end on, though, for you coke lovers: Salsarita’s does have fountain Coke Zero. This fact means I might give it another shot. Maybe. In the meantime, next post I’ll tell you where you should go to get quick, flavorful Mexican in Charlotte. You’re gonna love it.

So help me out here, Charlotte Spooners: if I’m trying to find the love at Salsarita’s, what should I order? Have you been and had a similarly lackluster experience? Or do you love it?

Charlotte Spoon Rating: 2 out of 5 spoons

Ru San’s Japanese Sushi

Ru San’s is actually based in Atlanta, Georgia, but they have one tiny little unsuspecting restaurant outside of the Peach State and it’s located in our very own Dilworth.

My friend Andrea and I were drawn by the promise of $1 sushi rolls. Andrea writes a lovely healthy lifestyle blog, Thin Thighs and Sweet Potato Fries, so make sure to hop on over and support another Charlotte blogger.

When we got to Ru San’s, Andrea noticed that the volume level inside was a little high. They have a chic sushi bar and if you don’t mind raising your voice a little, it’s a nice environment. We opted to sit outside, though, since there was a ton of blog-talk to be done!

Our waiter was . . . different. We asked about his picks for the $1 sushi menu and he seemed unenthusiastic to say the least. I asked if he was too cool for the $1 menu, and he half agreed. I responded with something only slightly less awesome than (but along the same lines as), “Okay, moneybags, what would you get?” More waffling . . . and finally he recommended the Firecracker Maki roll. Good! Andrea and I decided to share one of these, and order Spicy Tuna and California rolls form the $1 menu as well. We rounded off our meals with house salads tossed with ginger dressing — always a fave.

Andrea wanted a spring roll boasting asparagus and carrots on the side, but our hipster waiter said he thought they were out of them. Well, um, are you out of them? Or aren’t you? I guess we’ll never know, since after cleaning all our plates, we decided we were too full to care. So how was the food?

The salad was great — your average little salad with crispy noodles and ginger dressing on top. I love ginger dressing, so I enjoyed it.

The $1 sushi was actually good stuff for the cost. Your $1 buys you one roll, or 3 pieces. To me, it was on par with some of the sushi I’ve gotten at, say, Harris Teeter — and that sushi actually costs more! It’s a nice deal. Andrea and I discovered that it was also the perfect setup for trying several different types of sushi and sharing it around, since it’s so inexpensive.

The $1 stuff was good for the money, but our waiter was right about recommending one of the specialty rolls. We would’ve really been missing out had we not ordered the Firecracker Maki Roll to share between us. This $9 roll was comprised of 5 pieces, and plated with a tremendous pile of bean thread noodles and a spicy, tangy sauce. This was definitely my favorite taste of the night. The outside of the roll — which is filled with white and red tuna — is fried lightly, making the texture combination in the dish really lovely. The cold, slightly crisp noodles against the hot exterior and cool interior of the sushi, particularly when coupled with the bright sauce, was so satisfying.

One pet peeve about this restaurant (besides the waiter who seemed to kind of hate the menu?) was that they don’t serve fountain drinks. I’m a beverage stickler. I kind of hate when restaurants serve canned sodas (and no free refills, of course).

All in all, though, we had such a fun meal. I’d recommend trying Ru San’s if you’re a sushi fan and perhaps going about it like we did — ordering one larger specialty roll to share, some $1 rolls for variety, and a nice salad to complete the meal. Enjoy!

Charlotte Spoon Rating: 3 out of 5 spoons

Toscana Ristorante Italiano

Restaurant: Toscana Ristorante Italiano
Locations: 6401 Morrison Boulevard (in Specialty Shops at the Park)
Website: http://www.toscana-ristorante.net/
Dress: Nice Casual
Cuisine: Italian
Price Range:

  • Appetizers: $7-11
  • Lunch: $5-17
  • Pasta: $15-19
  • Meat / Seafood Entrées: $18-29

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 spoons

The Scoop:

Mike and I had our ten year anniversary just four days after my birthday, which gave us another chance to have a special night out after our infamous Fiamma incident. My sister suggested her favorite Italian restaurant in Charlotte: Toscana Ristorante Italiano. She told me it was a fine dining experience with a much more palatable price tag. Mike and I made our reservations, and after a really lovely dinner, we completely agree!

I feel a little like Toscana is a special secret. It’s tucked away in the middle of the Specialty Shops at the Park across from SouthPark Mall. Its quiet nook feels like a little cobblestone street, free of car traffic and bustle. If you’re an outdoor diner, there’s a gorgeous and comfortable patio where many customers were enjoying their dinner. As for us, we were seated indoors next to a bright, beautiful window on our right and a huge mural of the Italian countryside on our left. The restaurant feels so airy, relaxed, and light. Toscana describes it perfectly on their website: “Our romantic ambience feels just like a tranquil European courtyard that will enclose you with its old world elegance.”

While the atmosphere was lovely, you know what really made our evening after our Fiamma troubles a few days prior? The fact that our servers were so attentive, and that the manager was walking the front of the house, making sure each diner’s experience was perfection. We really felt welcome and taken care of the entire meal. A+!

Now, none of this would matter in the slightest if the food weren’t also impressive. Thankfully, it was impressive! Our first taste was crusty bread the server brought out with a traditional white bean salad. The salad was full of light flavors and drenched in delicious olive oil. Eating it while we were drenched in sunlight from the window was such a bright experience!

Bread and White Bean Salad

For my entrée, I chose the Penne All’Emiliana, described on the menu as, “Penne pasta with fresh asparagus, prosciutto, and parmesan cheese in a light cream sauce.” It was an exceptional plate of pasta right down to the leaf of basil that adorned the top. The flavor combination was light and perfect.

Penne All’Emiliana

Mike ordered Rigatoni Buttera, described as, “Tubular pasta with sweet Italian sausage and peas, in a light cherry tomato cream sauce.” I’m typically not big on Italian sausage (I hate anise. I mean hate), but his dish was fantastic. The peas especially were wonderful in it; I love peas in pasta! I can’t quite decide, but I may have liked Mike’s meal even better than my own.

Rigatoni Buttera

The portion sizes were perfect at Toscana for ordering either an appetizer or dessert. I doubt anyone is surprised, especially if you’ve seen my baking blog, that my sweet tooth won out! We ordered dessert. One thing I loved is that the server brought out the little crumb scraper to neaten the tablecloth between our dinner and dessert. It was just one more aspect that, indeed, made this feel like a fine dining experience without the price tag.

For dessert, Mike and I ordered a chocolate mousse that I’ve unfortunately forgotten the name of. The dessert menu on Toscana’s website is down, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to hunt for it when you visit if you’d like to try it. It wasn’t phenomenal, but was satisfying: rich and creamy, with a nice chocolate sauce.

Chocolate Mousse

In the end, for its welcoming and bright atmosphere, attentive service, and delicious Italian fare, Toscana gets 4.5 out of 5 spoons. Mike and I spent nearly all meal debating whether we loved Toscana or Mama Ricotta’s more. Mama Ricotta’s does have bolder flavors overall, but the atmosphere at Toscana’s is much nicer (the bright airiness, yes, but also the fact that it isn’t absolutely overrun during dinner!) We love both restaurants. I won’t even hesitate before recommending that you seek out this “special secret” or one of the sister restaurants listed on its website. You won’t be disappointed.

Have you been to Toscana, or one of its sister restaurants? Do you agree that it was a fine dining experience with a lower price tag? Have other ideas for top Italian restaurants in Charlotte? Share your thoughts by clicking on the “Comment” link below!

Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub

Restaurant: Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub
Locations: 3116 N. Davidson Street
Website: http://www.crepecellar.com
Dress: Casual
Cuisine: Blend of European and American
Price Range:

  • Starters: $4-9
  • Entrées: $6-16 (most around $7-12)
  • Desserts: $4.5-9

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 spoons

The Scoop:

I’ve been mourning Addie’s Jamaican Cuisine despite the terrible service. Oh, red beans and rice! How I loved thee! But I have to admit, there’s a new restaurant on the block that does soothe my pain. You’ve probably noticed the Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub as you’ve driven through NoDa. I was anxious to see what the restaurant was all about, and was pleased with what I found.

The atmosphere is bustling, friendly, and casual. When we walked in one Sunday around noon, a guitarist was strumming by the bar, the windows were all pulled open, people were laughing and digging into some delicious-looking food; in short, it looked promising! The space is tight, and we were admittedly a bit crowded, but it added to the “neighborhood pub” atmosphere.

There was something very satisfying and rustic about the food, as well. My sister ordered a masterpiece of a crepe: the Smoked Salmon Breakfast Crêpe, comprised of smoked salmon, egg, spinach, Gruyère, and hollandaise. The flavors were delicate and delicious. I love the idea of salmon as a breakfast or brunch option — it feels fresh and light, just right for a lazy morning.

Smoked Salmon Breakfast Crêpe

My little brother, Alex, also made an excellent choice, albeit perhaps not as brunch-appropriate! He chose a Crêpe Cellar Burger from the sandwich menu, which included Gruyère (they must love this cheese, and I can’t blame them), onion straws, and garlic aioli on a toasted bun. The entire burger was delicious, but in particular, the onion straws made it stand out. The tang and crunch with the other flavors was perfect.

Crêpe Cellar Burger

The burger came with a choice of side: fries or slaw. Having not tried the slaw, I can’t tell you for sure that you should get the fries . . . but you should get the fries. You can get them with pesto and brie and they were, hands down, the best part of the meal. It might be surprising that a side of french fries trounced all of our other food, but remember two key words: PESTO and BRIE! Just look at these beauties:

Pesto Brie French Fries

Am I forgetting anything? Oh, right. And then there’s my meal. If this sounds like an afterthought, that’s because it is. My meal, in contrast to all of the yumminess above, was very unremarkable. I saw what looked to be a delicious plate of french toast as I walked into the Crêpe Cellar, and it looked even better on the menu: Brioche French Toast with Kahlua Batter. I ordered it, but sad to say, it was very, very regular french toast. In fact, it was a little dry. I like my homemade french toast better. They gave me quite a pile of the stuff, but when it comes down to it, I preferred snagging fries off my brother’s plate than eating my pile of bread.

Brioche French Toast with Kahlua Batter

Another small bone to pick may be obvious from the pictures above. I’m not snobby about presentation, but I do feel the appearance of food is part of the experience and some effort should go into it. Neither my sister’s crêpe nor my brother’s burger looks like a dish that’s going to taste amazing. In fact, they look like they could be pretty mediocre. Just look at the burger, slapped on one side of an empty plate with a stray onion here and there. I like the idea of having a rustic, comfortable restaurant and the food can look rustic and comfortable. But perhaps not . . . sloppy? Rushed?

Overall, I hope you’ll try the Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub. We enjoyed our brunch very much, and the service sure beats that of its predecessor, Addie’s (one reader recounts seeing Addie herself asleep on her restaurant’s couch). The food is (mostly) great, with lovely flavor pairings. Just skip the french toast!

Have you tried the Crêpe Cellar Kitchen & Pub yet? Enjoy the atmosphere? Any particular dishes you love? Share your thoughts by clicking on the “Comments” link below!

Fiamma Restaurant

Restaurant: Fiamma Restaurant
Locations: 2418 Park Road
Website: Fiamma Restaurant
Dress: Nice-casual
Cuisine: Italian
Price Range:

  • Appetizers: $7.50-9.75
  • Entrées: $7.50-26.50

Rating: 0 out of 5 spoons

The Scoop:

I just need to vent for a moment. We’ve all had terrible restaurant experiences, right? The hair in the food, the rude employee, the outrageous check — there are plenty of things that can ruin an experience. I can roll with many a punch, but I want to share with you, as fellow consumers, how we were treated at Fiamma. Once you’re armed with the information, you can make the best choice about whether or not to patronize the restaurant.

Mike and I have been meaning to visit Fiamma since last year. We wanted to go during Charlotte Restaurant Week, but plans fell through. Since then, the somewhat expensive restaurant has simply never been at the top of our list. My very sweet roommate, knowing that I wanted to visit, gave me a generous sum and made a reservation for my birthday. I was beyond excited.

When Mike and I arrived at the restaurant, we were seated and given water and some absolutely delicious pesto. It was rich and drowned in flavorful olive oil. I was so excited about the meal to come, because surely, based on this tiny taste, it would be phenomenal. Well, unfortunately, we never ate another bite. Nor got drinks. Nor, apparently, even had a waitress. Let me explain.

Fiamma's Breadsticks and Pesto

The only morsel to pass through our lips at Fiamma: Breadsticks and Pesto

After we got our water, we were trying desperately not to fill up on the pesto, but no one seemed to be coming to take our drink order, much less our meal order. We waited. And waited. And waited. The two girls seated behind us, who were obviously in the same boat, finally flagged down a waitress and requested that someone serve them. She apologized, and we thought the oversight would be taken care of. So we waited. And waited. Plenty of employees were milling about, but apparently none of them were waiters? Perhaps they were simply restaurant props? A mirage produced by hunger? Who knows.

Finally, the host walked back and asked, sensing the problem, “Have you been waited on yet?” We told him no, relieved that the oversight would be taken care of. So we waited. And waited. And . . . you get the idea. The waitress did eventually come over, looking quite huffy (I think she was the only one waiting all those tables and, frankly, I’d be huffy too, though perhaps that doesn’t excuse it), and asked if we’d heard the specials. She quickly described them. I was about to cry out, “We know what we want! Here’s our order!” but her manner made it clear she was not our waitress and was only there to inform us. She left quickly. And no one else came!

Finally, I was feeling disappointed and Mike and I were both very annoyed. Mike walked over to the kitchen, unsure of where the waiters could be hiding, and said, “Can someone please take our order?” I hate having to press someone to serve me at a restaurant, though, because it makes me feel quite unwelcome. I collected my purse and we left. It was a struggle to find some other nice place to eat my birthday dinner with no reservation.

Everyone has their bad days, and perhaps Fiamma is en pointe all of the other 364 days of the year. My sister quite enjoyed a dinner she once ate there, and as I mentioned, they have great . . . uh . . . pesto. All I know is after my own ridiculous experience, I don’t feel comfortable giving them any spoons at all, and I won’t be giving them another chance to ruin my evening.

Okay, spill it! What’s your worst restaurant story? Whether you name names or not, tell us about a bad experience you’ve had. Or have you tried Fiamma and want to recount a similar or different experience? Share by clicking on the “Comments” link!