Archive for category Inexpensive Dining

Boston Tavern, Middleboro

We could make a pretty good burger at home. We could pour a glass of wine to go with it. We could tune the TV to the Golf Channel. But sometimes we don’t want to do all that ourselves, and that’s when we go to a place like Boston Tavern: to get good food at reasonable prices, and be treated by staff like they are genuinely glad we stopped in. And maybe order something a residential kitchen could never easily produce.

The Boston Tavern is an odd hybrid. There are other restaurants with the same name and logo in Norwood and one of the Bridgewaters but it’s not clear how they are related. The one in Middleboro has the feel of a hometown restaurant, with a relaxed vibe and regulars greeting one another. Conversely, it has that kitschy decor that is so popular with the TGIF and Cracker Barrel types of chains. But upon closer inspection, it’s apparent that the kitsch has an unusual authenticity: a out-of-town design firm wouldn’t get the significance of the James Hook Lobster Co. or a sign promoting a Combat Zone “gentlemen’s lounge.” When they say Boston Tavern, they mean it.

We got a comfortable seat at the bar, and while our bartender never introduced herself (the slip said she was “88”), she was very attentive and accommodating.

We rarely order an appetizer, but we came up with a great new rule: if we review the menu and both of us have an eye on the same app, we’ll get it. Here, it was the fried calamari ($13), and that’s another thing our home kitchen will never produce. This version was outstanding! It was a generous portion of tender rings with a light, crisp batter, tossed with vinegar peppers and olives, and served with a marinara sauce.

The Big Dog ordered a horseradish burger special ($13) cooked medium well, and it was perfect, with a pink center, flavorful beef, delicious sauce, and outstanding crispy french fries.

Gina opted for the Famous Cornbread Croutons ($15): one-inch cubes of to-die-for crunchy cornbread that come with a giant salad topped with fajita spiced chicken. They call it Southwest Chicken Fajita Salad on the menu, but we can imagine circumstances where one might order the salad and only eat the croutons. Not to say the salad wasn’t very good, because it was, with crisp fresh vegetables topped by the chicken and a delicious corn salsa. The croutons reheat well in a toaster oven, but if you want to convince yourself they won’t (and eat them all in the car on the way home), we will totally back you up. We liked the house balsamic vinaigrette better than the honey dijon dressing that comes with the salad and which they gladly swap out for whatever you like.

Gina enjoyed a Josh Cabernet ($7.50), and the Big Dog opted for a fancy coffee-flavored drink special called The Big Chill ($9).

We found the Boston Tavern to be an extremely comfortable spot to hang out for an afternoon, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a low-key place to watch a game, gather with friends, and/or enjoy very good food.

Boston Tavern Middleboro
58 East Grove Street (Route 28), Middleboro

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Cask and Pig Alehouse, Dartmouth

Here’s a classic sports bar with cavernous space and large TVs everywhere. With the Red Sox and the Bruins both doing well, it was a good afternoon to be surrounded by high-def.

The C&P diverges from the sports bar stereotype, however, with an adventurous menu of excellent food, and oddly, an appeal to young couples with toddlers.

Under normal circumstances, we might stop here after some retail therapy at the mall or the Home Depot. The Route 6 location is convenient to UMass-Dartmouth and the medical facilities throughout that area. It’s a few minutes from downtown New Bedford, and a few minutes more from downtown Fall River. We happened to be in the area because Gina was getting her first Covid vaccine.

We figured early afternoon on a sunny Sunday would mean no trouble getting a seat. Wrong! We waited 15 minutes for a distanced hightop beside the bar as parties with reservations streamed in ahead of us.

Kacey, our very busy bartender, set the stage by finding us a pair of cheaters so the Big Dog could read the special beer menu whose expansiveness necessitated tiny type. We sampled a double IPA from Maine’s Banded Brewing Co. and enjoyed its floral hoppiness, but opted for a couple of red wines instead: a Silk and Spice red Portuguese blend ($8) for Gina, and a Mondavi Private Selection cabernet ($9.50). The wine list was interesting, and selections by the glass fairly inexpensive. The craft beer list is clearly a focus, and if Vaccine #2 occurs when the Sox and the Bs aren’t on, we could imagine enjoying a sampler flight out on the very appealing heated patio.

We decided to start by sharing two appetizers. As we placed the appetizer order, we had already decided on our entrees. As we waited and watched other dishes come out of the kitchen, we thought maybe we would ask that to-go boxes come with the entrees. A few enthusiastic fork-waving moments into the appetizers, we decided we would just order the entrees to go and have them for dinner. As we slurped up the last of the appetizers, we were planning our next visit, and deciding we would order the entrees then. The apps were that hearty, and that delicious.

The first item on the menu, under the heading “Start Here,” is Scallops and BBQ Brisket ($13.95), described as pan-seared scallops, BBQ burnt ends, and Asian slaw. If you love scallops, you have to go here and order this. If you hate scallops, you have to do the same, and you will be a convert. They were perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and untainted by the delicious sauces that adorned the plate. It was a great way to get a sense of the kitchen, and a very good value. The brisket and slaw and BBQ sauce are definitely the restaurant’s wheelhouse, but man, those scallops were really good.

As our other appetizer, we ordered something we’ve never seen before: Peach and Almond Salad ($9.95 for the large, which is way too much for one normal person and a challenge for two, and $6.95 for small). Incredibly crisp mixed greens, carrots, and cucumbers were topped with goat cheese, dried cranberries, slivered almonds with some sort of yummy coating, and sliced peaches, with a sidecar of a fruity yet savory blood orange vinaigrette. The dish had classic feel, like probably everybody but Gina and the Big Dog know about this combination and we need to get out more.

We should not have been surprised by the high quality of the food: this restaurant is owned by the same folks who run the Pasta House in Fairhaven.

The C&P website offers a link to the Open Table reservation site, and we encourage using that – we felt lucky to get a seat even on an off hour. In fact, we have already booked our next visit there.

Cask and Pig Kitchen and Alehouse
780 State Road (Rte. 6), Dartmouth, MA

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Silver Lounge, North Falmouth

“Wow.”

Gina had ordered a pork chop special with Moroccan seasoning. She has never ordered pork chops in a restaurant and rarely cooks them at home, because they’re usually terrible.

Not so at the Silver Lounge.

The two chops were thin but unbelievably tender and juicy. Bartender Therese said the chef loves that Moroccan seasoning and puts it on everything, and we understood why. But having the chops as a perfectly cooked starting point was truly brilliant. The order ($14.95) came with a big, fresh salad (without onions), a little cup of sweet applesauce, and a perfect foil-wrapped baked potato with a freshly scooped dollop of sour cream and extra butter. The chops had an assertive grilled flavor and were oh so delicious.

We usually don’t tell about specials because it’s unfair to recommend a dish you can’t always buy, but the Silver Lounge has lamb chops on the regular menu and we can only imagine that they are prepared equally well.

Plus, the Big Dog ordered the steamed mussels appetizer ($11.75) and…

“Wow.”

Steamed in wine and butter and served with a chunk of bread for sopping up sauce, these mussels were tender and flavorful. They were possibly the best mussels we have ever had: clean and perfect.

The Big Dog also ordered a bowl of clam chowder ($7.25) which was full of clams and literally thick enough to eat with a fork.

The Silver Lounge bar cheese came highly recommended, so we took an order to go. It’s a creamy concoction containing yellow cheddar, horseradish, and we guess some cottage cheese, perfect for slathering on the Ritz crackers that come alongside in the appetizer version. We’ll admit that we ordered a small container to go ($8.50, with crackers), tested it while cashing out, and were so taken that we ordered another larger to-go container ($9, without crackers).

We were very focused on the food, but it should be noted that the Silver Lounge has a charming, cozy interior – an authentic version of the Cracker Barrel look, right down to the attached country gift shop. Given the folksy appearance, the sophisticated wine list was a pleasant surprise. The Big Dog enjoyed a Coppola cabernet ($9.75), and Gina enjoyed a Silver Palm cab ($10.25).

They seem to be adhering quite strictly to pandemic protocols, which during the time of our visit included the 25 percent capacity limit. Despite that, the staff was cheerful and welcoming, and we look forward to our next visit.

Silver Lounge Restaurant
412 Route 28A, North Falmouth, MA

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Knuckleheads, New Bedford

We recently had a dining experience that reminded us of the adage about not judging a book by its cover.

Imagine you’re planning a celebratory Friday lunch at a nice Portuguese restaurant in New Bedford. You pull up and take the very last available parking space in the lot. You’re seated quickly by a window, and an attentive waitress brings you a glass of the brand of wine you favor.  The menu offers many delectable-sounding choices, and your selections turn out to be ample and delicious, and at a price far less than you expected to pay. Happy dining day, right?

Now, imagine that you find yourself in a bar called Knuckleheads. You make your way past a lunchtime crowd of f-bomb-dropping workers in hoodies to the last unstable round hightop and move the ketchup and mustard bottles onto the windowsill so you’ll have space to eat. The waitress pours your wine from one of those tiny plastic bottles, and you anxiously choose a couple of dishes that total less than what you might have paid at the Honey Dew Donuts next door, as an argument breaks out among your barmates. Scary dining day, right?

But it was the same day! A friend recommended that we try Knuckleheads and we trust him, so we gave it a shot. While the atmosphere was not for the faint of heart, the food was outstanding and the service was very good.

Gina chose a grilled salmon special ($15.99). The big hunk of properly cooked fish came with a garlicky-buttery topping, a large portion of buttery mixed vegetables, and a baked potato with extra butter and sour cream. We understand how some people might be going out to a restaurant and think that bland steamed broccoli might be a good dining choice but… actually, no, we don’t. We think that vegetables deserve the same treatment of sauces and seasonings that the main entree gets, and we weren’t disappointed here. The fish was great, but the vegetables were the highlight of the dish.

The Big Dog ordered the Junior Portuguese Steak Sandwich ($12.99). It was the traditional preparation, with red bell peppers and a fried egg. He ordered the steak medium, and it was slightly pink the middle, just as we think medium should be. Served on a Portuguese roll, the serving was enough for another meal a few days later.

The Dog opted for the “round fries” as an accompaniment, and we were both glad. These Portuguese potatoes were just a scosh thicker than commercial potato chips, and addictive.

The wine, by the way, was Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon, which we order often. Here it was $5 a glass, and yes, it came from one of those little plastic bottles. And, by the way, a surprising number of the hoodie-wearers at the bar were drinking wine, not the Bud Light we would have expected. More proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Knuckleheads
85 MacArthur Drive, New Bedford

 

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End Zone, New Bedford

2018-07-27 14.28.34

Gina and the Big Dog have been at this for six years, having been inspired by our realization that we’re pretty good at sniffing out good dining experiences in unlikely places, and our desire to spread the word about these spots. Our first review was of a sports bar. And here we are again, with an even better hidden jewel disguised as a sports bar.

The End Zone is surrounded by a neighborhood that’s best described as “gritty.” Enter via the Coggeshall Street side and your first view is of the rectangular bar, with a slightly formal dining room to your right. Arrive via the Belleville Avenue entrance and find yourself amid a family-friendly layout of booths that the Big Dog likened to church pews.

Either way, once inside, you’ll find yourself in a delightful family restaurant specializing in outstanding renditions of Portuguese and American dishes. They have TVs displaying sports, and that’s really the extent of the “sports bar” thing.

This is a place where you’ll feel comfortable bringing Mom, even if Mom is a rabid Yankees fan who vexes you with daily texts about obscure sports news. Bring the kids. Bring a hot date. Bring your buddies to watch the Sox game. Bring your BFF to watch World Cup Soccer.

The Big Dog ordered a Moby Dick IPA ($6), and Gina called for a Pavao Vinho Verde ($5). If you’re visiting from out of town, these are outstanding choices. The beer is produced a mile or so away in a delightful brew pub and references New Bedford’s literary highlight. The wine, a tart yet fruity white served ice cold, will open your eyes to the world of Portuguese wines.

After putting in our order, Gina called for a side salad, which is $3.99 on its own, but $2.99 as an add-on to an entree. It was a really good, very big salad, with a mix of greens shredded carrots, cucumbers, red onion, and delicious house-made croutons. Our server, Jodi, brought us a basket of the outstanding Portuguese rolls from which those croutons were likely made.

Gina ordered the Cacoila Plate ($12.99), struggling with the local pronunciation, like “caserla.” It’s a mildly spicy dish of pork chunks and shredded pork, here served over a generous serving of delicious saffron rice and an equally generous portion of tasty french fries. (For the uninitiated, Portuguese-American food is a layered carb experience, where scooping up rice with delicious bread is not weird.) The pork chunks were a tad dry, but the shredded pork was not.

The Big Dog ordered a special: Portuguese Style Sirloin ($16.99). He ordered the steak medium well, and it came out perfectly medium, as he’d hoped. The steak was tender and flavorful, topped with a fried egg and ham as is typical for this dish.

Both entrees came with lively red pepper strips that were delicious, even when reheated the next day, and the day after that. Yes, our reasonably priced order included plenty of food.

If you love Portuguese food and live near New Bedford; if you have a young family and have reason to pass through New Bedford; if you’re a sports fan and live near New Bedford… then you probably already know about the End Zone.

If you don’t fall into any of those categories, don’t let the name or the neighborhood dissuade you; we strongly encourage you to give it a try. You will be pleasantly surprised and will likely consider making this a regular spot.

The End Zone
218 Coggeshall Street, New Bedford

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Moby Dick Brewing Co.

We stopped recently for lunch in one of New England’s most vibrant cities, a place shaped by a beautiful working waterfront, historic sites, unique and world-renowned museums, and a thriving cultural scene.  Boston? Providence? Portsmouth? Portland?

Nope, New Bedford. And if you haven’t been there recently, you need to visit.

Here’s a good reason: the Moby Dick Brewing Co., an authentic brewpub which recently opened on Union Street, one block from the Route 18 artery, and two from the state pier in one direction, and the famed New Bedford Whaling Museum in another. The food is delicious, the service excellent, and the space is a thoughtfully restored old building.

But let’s talk about the beer.  Park on the South Water Street side and walk up and you’ll see the beermaking equipment, smartly separated from the restaurant so the odor doesn’t permeate. We had the good sense to do a flight of four each, so we could sample each of the seven beers on offer that day, five weeks after the restaurant opened.  The range and variety of beers was remarkable, from a pale yellow unfiltered wheat to a frothy and nearly black Irish stout. Name any mass-produced beer, and the bar staff will match you up to a Moby Dick brew. Gina, not a beer drinker, liked the amber Ishm-Ale, and the Big Dog enjoyed the hoppy Sailors’ Delirium, a double IPA. All of the beers were good, though, and it was just a matter of personal preference.

A tray of four five-ounce pours is just $10, which felt like a very good value. And non-beer-drinkers shouldn’t feel left out — they have an excellent wine list, and we spotted some very special liquors on the shelf above the bar.

The lunch menu is short but wide-ranging, with a little bit of exotica balancing out the standards, and the dinner menu is as well.  (The website, we notice, does not include prices, but don’t be alarmed — we noted prices to be on the low side of reasonable.)

Gina started with a sweet potato and apple soup ($5), a thick and spicy blend topped with toasted sesame seeds. The Big Dog chose the salt cod chowder ($6), a very good twist on the standard chowder.

We split the marinated beet salad ($10): thick slices of beets that were likely roasted, then arrayed over what they call a whipped ricotta, mixed with shallots, which would have been outstanding on toast. The whole thing was topped with chopped cashews and microgreens and looked as good as it tasted.

But the star of the show for us was crispy fried fish sandwich ($12). A buttery bun was piled high with pickles, tartar sauce, lettuce, and a giant pouf of fried fish. If you’ve sworn off French fries, these need to be the ones for which you make an exception.  The whole thing was a messy, high calorie treat, plenty for two.

We think that a well-designed space can really enhance the experience of dining out, and the Moby Dick vibe is truly outstanding.  Every detail, from the beam over the bar from which bulbs dangle, to the iron pipe toilet paper dispenser in the restroom, to the subway tile behind the bar, celebrates the history of the building, and the oversized windows are a textbook tactic for enlivening a city block while connecting the people inside with the world beyond.

Combined with the great food, delicious beer, and good service, Moby Dick Brewing Co. offered a great special occasion experience, and the reasonable prices make it a sensible regular spot for a meal. We look forward to returning.

Moby Dick Brewing Co.
10 South Water Street, New Bedford

 

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Hideaway Restaurant

IMG_20150822_145719201 (1)We went to one of the region’s finest Italian-themed white-tablecloth restaurants and ordered chicken parmesan with linguine and we did not like it at all.

The next day, we did something silly but kind of interesting: we ordered the exact same thing at the Hideaway Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall in Middleborough.  And it was delicious.

In fairness to White Tablecloths, we love their food, and they were clearly having an off night, because none of the four of us was happy with our meal. Chicken piccatta was bland, a blackened salmon over ceasar salad was too salty, and pork chops topped with vinegar peppers dish was weird.

The Hideaway is as far from white tablecloths as you can get.  Gina and the Big Dog sat at a corner of a bar which winds around the interior of the room. Its worn formica surface was soon covered with paper placemats advertising, among other things, a gun shop and Big Dog Plumbing (no relation). One of the Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne movies was playing in our corner, and something funnier was airing on the opposite side of the room, judging by the occasional laughter we heard.

The chicken parm ($9.99) was as far as you could get from the white tablecloths’ version, too.  White Tablecloths featured chicken breasts pounded to paper-thinness, coated in a bland breading, and overcooked, served on mushy room-temperature linguine, with a lifeless tomato sauce and no discernible cheese. Granted, that version came with a house salad (also off) and bread, but for the same amount of chicken and pasta, it cost more than twice the Hideaway price.

By contrast, the Hideaway chicken was fork-tender.  The linguine was cooked al dente and served in a separate hot casserole dish. The breading was slightly crisp and kept the chicken moist.  The tomato sauce was rich, and the dish was bathed in mozzarella. What a treat in an unexpected setting!

That was Gina’s lunch.  The Big Dog ordered a build-your-own burger.  It was very good, and it was a bargain at $6.70, plus 50 cents for the addition of lettuce, onion, and American cheese (and Dog’s usual combination of mayonnaise and mustard, both served in little plastic cups on the side). As they say, it was all that and a bag of Lays chips. He asked for it to be cooked medium and it came out more like well done, but he was happy with it.

He was equally happy with his margarita, a refreshing blend of Cuervo and the usual other ingredients ($7.25). Gina had a forgettable cabernet ($6.50).

At White Tablecloths the four of us split two bottles of good cabernet, and we enjoyed the evening out with friends we don’t see often enough.  At the Hideaway, we got engrossed in the Jason Bourne movie and it was really just a quick pit stop on our way back from an errand.

The two experiences represented an interesting contrast.  White Tablecloths felt like a disappointment, especially unsettling because we’d only gone there because we know it’s so dependable. The Hideaway felt like a great value and a surprisingly good experience. We were delighted and will return with higher expectations.

The Hideaway Restaurant
9 Station Street, Middleborough

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Antonio’s, New Bedford

2015-01-17 14.01.27Spend enough time in the Southcoast region of Massachusetts, and you almost become an honorary Portuguese citizen. Most local restaurants  have kale soup and some sort of Mozambique dish on their menu. We like traditional Portuguese dishes and the zing that the colonies, notably Cape Verde and Brazil, have introduced.

That said, we must acknowledge that we’re a coupla pale-skinned Irish kids, and no Avo ever made us bacalhau. That can be good and bad when visiting an ethnic restaurant like Antonio’s.  On the plus side, it means that we didn’t grow up with a single preparation of a traditional dish and find all others just plain wrong.  Conversely, we don’t know when something has strayed so far from the traditional preparation as to be offensive to some.

Antonio’s has a very good reputation, and we’re pretty sure it doesn’t stray from tradition.  It has been around for 25 years.  At 2 p.m. one recent Saturday, every seat in the house was filled, which is weird — as you know, that’s our favored lunchtime, and we have never, ever, had to wait for a seat at that time anywhere, until we visited Antonio’s.

We were joined by Gina’s mom, brother, and sister-in-law, for a late Christmas get-together and gift exchange. They all live in the New Haven, CT, area, where ethnic restaurants are so common that you can choose not just the continent of origin, but the specific country — if you don’t care for the Ethiopian style of sambusa, you can find a Somalian restaurant instead, for example. But apparently New Haven doesn’t have any Portuguese restaurants, so our choice was simple.

The beer and wine list set the tone.  Gina chose an Esporao Reserva from the Alentejo region of Portugal, while the Big Dog and Gina’s brother chose a Buzzards Bay Brewery IPA from the Westport region of Massachusetts. Everyone was happy with their selection.

For those new to Portuguese cuisine: It is carb-intensive. Most of our entrees came with a yummy yellow rice AND potatoes.  AND a delicious bread basket of fresh rolls and bread slices.  AND we ordered soups thickened by potato and/or beans. AND we ordered dizzyingly delicious custards in puff pastry for dessert.  We were all ready to run a marathon the next day, and we’re sure some people do that.

The kale soup ($2.99) was delicious, but Avo would probably be opposed. Most of the preparations we’ve seen feature an oily beef broth with red kidney beans, sliced kale leaves, and hunks of chourico. This soup base was velvety, creamy, and thick, unlike anything we had seen. There were white AND red beans in evidence.  AND macaroni. AND we’re sure there were some potatoes involved in the broth, all carrying on the carb tradition.  This version had some strips of kale leaves, but the unusual addition of cabbage, cut from the stem end in a manner that invited the curly leaves to hang together in a very appealing way. We loved this soup, and will go back just for that.

We’ll hope for bread with our soup. The overflowing basket included some slices of white bread, and a half dozen “pops,” the Portuguese rolls officially known as papo secos.

Gina’s mom ordered the Chicken Algavaria ($14.99), and it stole the show. We should have known what was in store when the affable waitress brought the rest of us silverware, and Mom a shovel.  The dish arrived in an aluminum vessel the size of a child’s wading pool.  It was chock full of shrimp, littleneck clams, and chunks of boneless chicken tossed with saffon rice. We’re kidding about the shovel and the wading pool, but after Mom ate her portion and shared oversized tastes with the rest of us, she asked for the leftovers to be divided into two separate to-go containers, and the one we took home weighed four pounds.  Four pounds! This was A BIG PORTION. At lunch!

Gina ordered the grilled swordfish ($13.99) which came with hunks of peeled white potatoes and broccoli, and took more than 60 percent of the fish and potatoes home. Big Dog ordered a lamb skewer ($13.99) which came with the saffron rice and a delicious salad, and took 70 percent of the lamb and rice home.  Gina’s brother ordered Steak Tips Diane ($15.99), a creamy preparation that came with rice and french fries of which he took home 55 percent. Slim sister-in-law ordered a crab cake dish ($9.99) and managed to finish it, which made us assume it was an appetizer portion.

Bottom line: the five of us ended up with 13 meals averaging less than $6 apiece.

We all ended the meal with a Nata Custard Tart, a special for $1.25 apiece. We’re thinking it was a puff pastry pressed into a muffin tin and filled with a thin custard. When we come back for our kale soup and pops, please add one of these to our order. It was delicious and fun.

The decor at Antonio’s is pleasant and clean but not fancy. The service is suited to a white tablecloth setting, not the stacking-chair-and-paper-placemat scene we got. Overall, we felt our expectations were exceeded throughout our visit, and there is no higher compliment to a restaurant.

Antonio’s Restaurant
267 Coggeshall Street, New Bedford
508-990-3636

 

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El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant, Taunton

elmariachiEverybody’s talking about El Mariachi.

Their original restaurant in Taunton is always packed.  A newer outpost in Easton is bustling.  At the start of the new year, they opened a restaurant in Seekonk.  And in February, they’ll be opening on Main Street in Wareham.

“Everyone” includes the Big Dog’s little sister, who had told us about the Taunton location years ago. So it seemed fitting that when we went to the original for research purposes, she and her family would join us there.

The Big Dog and his brother-in-law each began with a Presidente margarita ($9.50), which they liked.  Sis ordered  a mojito ($6.75) when our server, Isabella, let her know that fresh mint was available, and it was delicious. Gina ordered a serviceable house cabernet ($5.25) and particularly liked the colorful glass, which was very thick.

While we reviewed the extensive menu, we augmented the complimentary chips and salsa with an order of guacamole ($8.50), made tableside in a stone pot and more than enough for the five of us. The chips arrive warm, with far less salt than any version that comes from a bag.

Niece Kaiya, who is in third grade and very knowledgeable about food, recommended the carne asada ($14.95).  Knowing that she was going to order it and would probably share, we made other choices, but this was definitely a good one.  After Kaiya carefully moved aside the scallion garnish, the strips of skirt steak were flavorful and tender.

Sis ordered the fish tacos: grilled cod wrapped in flour tortillas, accompanied by a do-it-yourself slaw, so you could add as much cabbage and dressing as you like, and a mound of white rice. This is probably the healthiest option on the El Mariachi menu.

Seeking the traditional Mexican restaurant experience, Gina opted for the combo plate which featured two choices ($13.75, including a dollar extra for sour cream) from among enchilada, burrito, chimichanga, chile relleno, tostada, tamale or taco, any of which can be filled with ground beef, shredded beef, shredded chicken, shredded pork or cheese. The cheese enchilada and shredded beef burrito were good choices.  Like most of the entrees, this came with yellow rice and refried beans on an enormous plate.

Brother-in-law enjoyed arroz con camarones ($15.75), a generous dish of shrimp tossed with vegetables in a red sauce.

The Big Dog choose pork carnitas ($13.95), which was the only slight misstep of the evening.  The pork was kind of dry, which would not have been noticeable had he wrapped it in the flour tortillas with accompanying red sauce and guacamole. But there was no evidence that assembly was required, and in any case, that would have taken away from the very good taste of the pork. He took home nearly half of the very large portion, and it was excellent from the food processor rolled into the tortilla with a little mayonnaise the next day for breakfast.

Kaiya talked us into trying the churros ($4.75), delicious little strips of fried dough served with fruit topped whipped cream, melted chocolate, and caramel for dipping.  They were a perfect end to a very good meal, and we look forward to Kaiya giving us guidance during future restaurant visits.

Our very attentive servers spoke with Mexican accents and dressed in festive clothing you associate with Mexico.  The decor in this storefront restaurant is warm and welcoming, with walls adorned with colorful Mexican artifacts.  A darker bar in the space next door, accessible from inside, looked like a great place to watch a football game.  While we were there, three people got the birthday treatment, which here involves singing and having an oversized sombrero placed on your head.

One warning for the budget-conscious: the portions here are big but not super-sized, and most of the prices we noticed are $1 to $2 more than what is shown on the on-line menu.

We understand the Lopez brothers, who own and operate the growing restaurant chain, are from Mexico, and seek to replicate an authentic Mexican dining experience.  We’ve never been to Mexico but we’ve been to Taunton, and we’re looking forward to an El Mariachi opening closer to home.

El Mariachi
44 Taunton Green, Taunton

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Riccardi’s, Fairhaven

2014-10-01 14.00.45The best restaurant stories involve some serendipity: a little haven of deliciousness in a strip mall, a surprisingly beautiful decor in a biker bar, etc.

This is not one of those stories.  Riccardi’s was delicious and beautiful and we were delighted with our experience there.  But it was no surprise; we’d been stalking them for months.

The Big Dog remembered going to Riccardi’s in New Bedford as a kid and wasn’t sure we would like it. We explored their website and were uninspired. Gina did a drive-by and was unenthused. We called for reservations one night and hung up before anyone answered the phone.  We bid on a silent auction package at a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser because it included a $15 Riccardi’s gift certificate, and we figured that would push us over the edge and make us go.

And finally, mid-afternoon on one raw and rainy Wednesday, we went.

And we loved Riccardi’s.

Before we get to the deliciousness and beautifulness, we should comment on the service.  We enjoy going to restaurants where the waitstaff is well trained, polite, pleasant, and competent.  We also enjoy going to restaurants where the waitstaff pull up a chair and tell us about themselves. But we’re always most comfortable in establishments where the employees have an innate understanding of when polite-and-reserved is going to make for a better dining experience than convivial chit-chat. The staff we met at Riccardi’s had it. In our case, there was literally a moment when our bartender transitioned from “Server #41” to “Shelby,” and that was a good thing.

Not to belabor the point, but just as a clean restroom suggests a clean kitchen, and a great house salad portends a great meal, the bartender’s handling of a request to change the TV station is kind of a bellwether. Often they say they’ve been told they can’t (meaning management doesn’t trust the staff).  As often, they claim ignorance (pretend-stupid is as bad as stupid, in our book).  At Riccardi’s, after looking around to make sure our choice wasn’t likely to offend other customers, Shelby offered us the remote — a good move — but then checked back to make sure we’d figured it out — a great move.

We sat at the six-seat granite-topped bar at one edge of the dining area and marveled at the space: forests of lush philodendrons dangled from high ceilings, ample windows and skylights let in plenty of natural light but with landscaping that protected us from the view of the parking lot.  Booths lined the room, with those at the front end of the restaurant — opposite the take-out area where we entered — were slightly elevated. The space felt both newly renovated and long-established. When we arrived, a fitting Frank Sinatra song was playing. Brought in blindfolded, you never would have guessed you were on Route 6 in Fairhaven.

So.  We started with a great bottle of wine, a Banfi chianti, for $28.  It was light yet substantial and seemed like a great bargain, and paired nicely with a basket of dense and slightly sweet bread.

Gina selected the “Venice Feast” ($9.95) and will order it next time too. It includes two manicotti stuffed with a heavenly creamy cheesy spinachy concoction, two slices of eggplant fried in a light eggy wash and dabbed with cheese and tomato sauce, and a giant scoop of ziti (you can opt for linguine instead) topped with an earthy marinara.

The Big Dog’s pick was off what we guessed was a specials list, although the list was laminated, making it seem very permanent, and unlabeled.  His seafood risotto ($17.95) included a base of arborio rice cooked with chunks of tomato and onion and a hint of shellfish broth, then topped with an artfully arranged display of tiny littlenecks and mussels, interspersed with lightly pan fried scallops and shrimp. The shellfish were outstanding, and the rice had a decadently rich buttery flavor.

As an aside, we should say that the Venice Feast came with a side salad and the Big Dog’s risotto included, for a $1 upcharge, a generous bowl of minestrone, and we didn’t care for either. The Dog thought the soup was okay but too far from traditional minestrone to bear the name, and you frankly don’t want to hear Gina’s tirade about lettuce that tastes like chlorine.  But that really seems like quibbling, given how fresh and delicious the balance of our meal was.

Mid-afternoon on a rainy weekday, we had the waitstaff’s full attention, with only two other parties in the dining room, and we can imagine that the atmosphere changes dramatically on a weekend night, but the structure seems to be in place to accommodate a large crowd.

We definitely recommend Riccardi’s and are looking forward to returning.

Riccardi’s Italian Restaurant
38 Sconticut Neck Road, Fairhaven

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