Cheap isn't everything
by Robert Nadeau
Have you noticed lately how so-called restaurant critics never write anything
critical? Well, we're going to fix that problem right here. The Coyote Grill
sets a very high standard for itself by taking the name used in Santa Fe and
Washington, DC, by the fine chef Mark Miller for his Coyote Cafés. But
this varmint lacks the class of those other coyotes. The food is admirably
cheap and the room is kinda fun, but the flavors just didn't get me howling at
the moon. More like growling at the keyboard.
Coyote Grill |
One Kendall Place (Kendall Square), Cambridge
Open Mon-Wed, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thurs-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; and Sun,
AE, MC, Visa
The place does smell good: it has an aroma of wood smoke that reminds me of
Disney's wilderness lodge in Orlando. (There the wood smoke comes from a
carefully located smoking plant that smokes turkey drumsticks for the whole
park.) It does evoke the Old West, but the effect dissipates rapidly. Iced tea
($1.75) is about as bad as I've ever had. It's thin, and without sweetening it
tastes like cardboard. Salsa and chips would be okay if the salsa had cilantro
in it and came in a container larger than the plastic cup provided, which looks
as if somebody from an airline commissary designed it.
Chili con carne ($3.95) is the familiar New England style: spaghetti sauce and
kidney beans where a Texan would use pinto beans, if any, and keep it less
sweet by avoiding cooked onion, green pepper, and most or all of the tomato
sauce. That said, it had chunks of tender beef, it was moderately spicy, and if
they'd add more cumin, people would like it.
"Camarones al fruta de ajo" ($10.95) sounds odd in Spanish, and is even odder
on the plate. The four jumbo shrimp were grilled reasonably well, but what lay
beneath them was collards and raisins and some other fruit. The shrimp were
good, but the rest was almost inedible. That goes for the whole enchilada, so
to speak, on "Hop Sing's Spring Rolls." Imagine an egg roll as big as a
burrito, filled with a mishmash of stuff, sliced once and laid out on some
"cowboy spaghetti" -- sweet-and-sour hot sauce on cold spaghetti, no thank you.
Underneath that, and spreading across the vast plate, was a layer of black
beans flavored with a lot of cumin. I couldn't taste the hoisin sauce the menu
mentioned, but it was just as well -- cumin and hoisin sauce might not be so
Speaking of enchiladas, "our famous enchilada" ($8.95) reminds me of Nadeau's
law: "Never eat anything famous." New restaurants don't have anything truly
famous yet, and even if they've guessed right on future fame, the diner still
has to guess again: famous for what? I'm guessing size here, or value, as this
is another burro-size roll, based on some kind of reddish flour tortilla. But
the serious guessing is about what's inside. Chicken and cheese, mainly, and
possibly cinnamon, although that might be in the rice underneath (which is
supposed to be smoked). The cinnamon really is distracting. There is a thin
spill of red chipotle sauce on top, not enough to taste. There is also some
guacamole and a thin green salsa, likewise too thin to taste without scraping
it off to get an adequate sample.
Enchilada actually means, more or less, "wrap," and so we tried a Rio Grande
pollo wrap ($7.95). Here the flavor is mostly mayonnaise and the raw-flour
taste of the green tortilla it's wrapped in. Take one apart and you can see
chicken, salad, and guacamole. One of the odd things about Coyote generally is
the lack of chili-pepper flavors; a canned pepper served whole with the Rio
Grande turned out to be one of those low-voltage jalapeños. The platter
also had coleslaw and the cold sweet noodles from Hop Sing's Spring Rolls.
Chicken fajitas ($10.95) are an advanced example of how ethnic foods lose their
character over time. "Fajita" means belt or girdle; it originally applied to
skirt steak, which was cheap and made a quick grilled meal-in-a-tortilla for
Mexican-American workers around San Antonio. Like a lot of food around San
Antonio, the fajitas were marinated with cumin. But the dish has become a
nationwide restaurant specialty, and we now have: strips of chicken, without
seasoning, baked or poached and served on a hot cast-iron "sizzling platter"
with green pepper, tomato, and onion. The three warm flour tortillas (nicely
kept in a plastic crock) are the best part of the dish. Even with the salsa and
sour cream accompaniments, it hardly tastes Mexican or Mexican-American at all.
The hot sauce ("Cajun Power" brand) on the table helps a little.
As the cumin had all gone into the beans under the spring roll, and the fruit
and cinnamon for dessert had ended up under the shrimp and in the famous
enchilada, respectively, I began to feel as though Coyote had sent away for the
Mexican food kit, but tried to assemble it without the directions. Maybe the
directions were in Spanish?
Desserts (all $3.95) show a lack of energy that might be conceptual, but might
also have been Monday-night syndrome. Raspberry cheesecake was served without
the sauce and tasted old and cranky. The substitute chocolate and whipped cream
were no real help. (Whipped cream on cheesecake?) The brownie sundae was
edible, but the brownie wasn't very chocolatey, there wasn't much chocolate
sauce, and the vanilla ice cream wasn't special either. The best of the
desserts was rice pudding, served in a neatly molded mound with caramel sauce.
The sauce was gritty with candied sugar, but the flavors were good together.
Service on a slow night was quite good, except for a long pause before dessert
with used dishes left on the table. (I've been noticing this problem a lot
lately.) The room has its good features, such as the terra-cotta wall lamps at
each booth, but the pop soundtrack has no theme. And you definitely don't want
to have "Hotel California" playing while diners are waiting for their checks.
The metaphor of being trapped in an irrational place is not the one to evoke
Robert Nadeau can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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