Share a Pie with Your Brother (or Your Sister) from PieZano's

The South side of Watertown is home to the city's middle, junior, and senior high schools, its hospital, numberous car dealerships and doctor's offices, and many beautiful neighborhoods. But it's never been a great place to eat.

Sure, there's a Jreck Subs. For awhile, a Pizza Hut and a Baskin Robbins took up some space. Way back when I was a kid, the diner inside the Kmart on Outer Washington Street kept busy, and Shelly's Deli did a brisk business for many years just a few doors down from that property. I'm thrilled that Ives Hill Country Club provides a fine dining and lounge setting on this side of town, but a few more casual options have been sorely missing for years. With all of those professional people, close restaurants open for lunch were especially lacking. 

Like magic, PieZano's Pizza showed up just a couple months ago in the Tops Plaza. And there was much rejoicing in the land! I've sampled PieZano's menu on three separate occasions, and I've been waiting excitedly to share my thoughts about this new gem with you all.

Our first visit, we shared a whole veggie pizza, and were immediately impressed by the tasty, chewy, golden crust - not cracker thin or Sicilian, but somewhere in between. It was hearty, flavorful, cooked at high enough heat to render the bottom crunchy, but balanced with the plentiful toppings. The vegetables were impeccably fresh, peppers still crunchy, mushrooms hand cut instead of from a can, and thin shards of red onion for sweetness sharing space with black olive slices for depth. The sauce at PieZano's is sweet and bright, and the cheese has good pull and that creamy, almost salty taste of quality aged mozzarella. 

The second time, we got a pepperoni pie and brought it home, to see if it would get soggy during transport. Fear not! That toothsome crust had appealing, caramelized blisters around the edges, and remained a crisp base for the spicy, greasy pepperoni. It might seem odd that I'm describing the pepperoni - we all know what pepperoni tastes like, right? But I can't tell you how many times I've had slices of cheaper pepperoni without that telltale bite, the mild-but-exciting zing of Italian chile flakes that seem to be missing from bargain brands of this sausage. I only use Margherita brand or better at home, and I was pleased that PieZano's pepperoni - America's most popular pizza topping - was worthy.

This is not NY style or Chicgo style or gourmet pizza, but it's exactly what you might want to order on a Friday night after a long workweek: hearty, flavorful, simple, and delicious. 

Our next visit, we dined in. PieZano's has a small dining room, but are not especially set up to accommodate eat-in customers. The flatware is plastic, and the salad we ordered was already packaged in a plastic to-go clamshell and had to be dished out onto a plate for us. Dressings are from little packets. 

The garlic knots here are large and fluffy, with a lightly crisp exterior. They weren't drowning in garlic butter, like other local knots. They had garlic salt on top rather than fresh, minced garlic, so the effect was much different than most sloppy, super garlicky rolls, more like garlic bread made with pizza dough.

The vegetable beef soup, I didn't think was scratch made, but the menu asserts that PieZano's makes its soups in-house. It was very flavorful, bordering on salty, with big chunks of potato, green beans, peas and soft beef.

Medium chicken wings were coated in a bottled buffalo sauce, I believe, as it was more viscous than a simple butter and hot sauce combo would render. They were cooked perfectly crispy for my tastes. Dipping sauce and celery and carrots are extra, as is the trend these days. No gratis accoutrements, a la Wing Wagon. My suggestion would be to raise the price 50 cents and include blue cheese and celery.

The chicken parmesan grinder was lighter than I expected, dressed with a sauce smacking of fresh tomato brightness and lots of gooey provolone cheese on a light, airy bread. The fried chicken breast itself was standard, and didn't add much flavor to the overall works. Chips on the side were house-made, crinkle cut. Not greasy but aggressively salty. Order an extra cup of water for these babies, because PieZano's doesn't serve beer to wash them down with.

Stromboli with pepperoni and mushrooms was massive and absolutely delicious, as were its leftovers the next day. It was a hair on the greasy side, but not in an off-putting way. Again, the ingredients stuffed inside were high quality and flavorful, the sweetness of the sauce offsetting the earthy mushrooms and spicy pepperoni. 

We tried two individual slices, a red and a white, which are available in addition to whole pizzas at PieZano's. They couldn't hold a candle to the whole pies, their flavor muted by too long a slumber at room temp, and the crust was dried out. My advice: skip 'em.

There are flashes of brilliance on the menu at PieZano's, along with some items that fell short, for us. I should note that they offer gluten free pizza, in addition to my preferred glutinous extravaganza, so for those our you looking out for such things, now you know. 

I give PieZano's a seven on the BHS scale - an overall great addition to this side of Watertown, with mostly terrific eats. While the pizza can't beat Stefano's or Art's Jug, for me, it is something I've been happy to tuck into on several occasions. With a side of crispy wings and some of those massive garlic knots, you can sail away into your carb coma blissfully after a meal here. Mangia! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Piezanos Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Flower City Brews and Hall of Fame Hash

We spent a weekend in Rochester recently for a family wedding, and though we didn't even scratch the surface of the good restaurants in this gateway to Western New York, we ate pretty well when we had the chance to steal away from the family festivities.

Shawn almost never submits his own restaurant request, so when he does, I tend to acquiesce. He wanted to do lunch at the Genesee Brew House, which is located right in the Genesee Brewery, where all your Genny Cream Ale dreams become realities. The menu is basically bar food, with some nods to German and Western New York specialities. We were staying at the Grand Hyatt near the convention center, and assumed that walking would be a smart way to get to the brewery, since downtown Rochester must have fun shops and coffee houses and the like. 

should have known better than to assume that anything nice is ever located around a convention center. It's pretty rough in this part of downtown, and later on, Shawn's family asked us how we avoided being stabbed on our journey. Fair question. I understand that convention centers are often built in less savory neighborhoods, since that land is cheaper and such facilities require massive square footage, but when that influx of visitors fails to gentrify the area, it's always confusing to me. Don't local cafes and boutiques want to locate themselves in affordable neighborhoods with tons of hotel rooms? Maybe my understanding of urban planning is less honed than I think.

Despite some brushes with sketchy streets and inhabitants, we passed the impressive High Falls and arrived at the Genesee Brewery, which is a beacon of prosperity in this bleak, derelict landscape. We sat on the deck, overlooking the pedestrian bridge and river, and ordered up a delicious Pilsner that would make you second guess if you're drinking a Genny.

We ordered the buffalo chicken pierogies as our starter, because those two things combined are a pretty terrific idea. They were good in practice as well in theory - crispy fried dough pockets filled with juicy, pulled, white meat chicken tossed with wing sauce. Big chunks of blue cheese in the dipping sauce completed the buffalo wing flavor profile. We loved them.

In honor of our proximity to Western New York, I ordered the beef on weck for my lunch. Weck is Buffalo slang for something called a kimmelweck roll, which is a German construct of a white roll topped with caraway seeds and coarse salt. The roll is stuffed with rare roast beef, which is served with horseradish sauce (in this case, horseradish mayo) and au jus for dipping. 

For the most part, this was a delicious sandwich, except that our waitress spilled the jus during the basket's trip to our table, so the bread was all soggy and falling apart before I had a chance to dip it. In the end, it had to become a kife and fork sandwich so that I didn't end up wearing more than I could eat. A French fry option also would have been nice with the sandwiches - they only serve plain chips at the Brew House.

Shawn got the fish tacos, which were a lot better than some other fish tacos that I've suffered through lately in Upstate NY. These were dressed with a sweet cole slaw and avocado slices, with beer-battered and fried cod. Rice was served alongside with some black beans mixed in, which was simple, but well-seasoned. For my money, these still couldn't touch Southern California fish tacos in vibrancy, but they were reasonably tasty. The so-called "Baja" cream sauce over top was a little muddled in flavor, but helped add the creaminess and citrus you needed with the fish and the slaw. I guess I was just missing any sign of spice or heat, just as with most Mexican or Tex Mex food served in our state. It's all lacking in chiles, for me.

Our waitress had a great personality, and it was lovely and relaxing out on Genesee Brew House's second floor deck. We had fun in the gift shop downstairs, too, perusing vintage Genny gear in the industrial chic space that once housed the brewery's actual equipment. This was a welcome breather during a somewhat hectic wedding weekend, and even though the food wasn't knock-your-socks-off spectacular, we enjoyed the experience. I give Genesee Brew House a six on the BHS scale.

Genesee Brew House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The next morning, we ventured to the Highland Park Diner for breakfast with family, and though seating space was at a premium in this vintage diner, the food was simply primo. 

We were spread out between a couple of tables and some counter seats, as our party was large, but that didn't stop me from sampling a bunch of the specialities from the diner's gargantuan menu, which is crammed with decadent breakfast eats.

As you can see, this is is a full-on dining car-style diner, with chrome accents and a counter running the length of the dining room. Those counter seats afford you a view of the line cooks hustling in front of the flat top griddle, the mark of good diner food. The corned beef hash, perhaps the most righteous food to hit our table that morning, reflects this badassery.

Good corned beef hash is an art form, and you won't convince me otherwise. You can't get it from a can, and even buying deli counter corned beef doesn't really do the job. This was a straightforward presentation of cubed meat and shredded potatoes with a bit of fresh, green parsley in the mix, but what I loved was that the beef brisket had been "corned," or brined with some sweet pickling spices, to take the edge off the robust saltiness you usually get beat over the head with when eating this delicacy. So you had some sweet flavor mingling with the fattiness and that cured meat flavor, plus the bland earthiness of the potatoes and just a tiny hint of freshness from the herbs. It was all crisped up on the flat top to achieve golden brown, crispy deliciousness, as the diner gods dictated. You know, in accordance with the prophecy.

I am not ashamed to admit that I vacillated for an inordinate amount of time between two benedicts on the impressive list of 15 or so combos of breads, eggs, meats and sauces. The Irish Benedict, with that corned beef hash, was singing a very seductive song to me; we had had a late and boozy night, and that level of salty fattiness sounded good. Luckily, Cousin Sue ordered the side of it you're seeing above, which clinched my choice of the Country Benny. Two biscuits, two eggs, sausage patties, and cream gravy. Um, yes please. Hell, I went to bed at 10:30 last night, and I would like some of that right now.

This dish was satisfying, hearty, and filling, but unfortunately not the perfection I hoped for. The gravy needed a good pinch of salt, several grinds of black pepper, and maybe a tiny bit of nutmeg to elevate its relative blandness. The sausage, I believe, was made in-house, but was lacking somewhere in its own flavor profile, as well. It was more sweet than salty, and didn't carry especially strong pork flavor. In my opinion, some red pepper flakes and garlic in the mix would have helped. I tasted fennel, which is a plus, but just not a lot of the natural flavor of the meat. The potatoes were nicely griddled, for texture, but also lacked seasoning, which I remedied with the salt, pepper and ketchup on our table.

Shawn ordered the bacon breakfast panini on special that day, which came with bell peppers and cheddar cheese on it. The peppers added nice sweetness to this toasty, crusty, ciabatta-based scrambled egg sandwich, while the cheese added needed richness.

In addition to the hash, which she shared around the table, Sue tried the mixed berry pancakes, which were a total sugar bomb. While the berries and whipped cream rendered this sweetness overload for me, I did note that the pancakes themselves were light and creamy - wonderfully textured and very yummy.

Cousin Bob went for the breakfast garbage plate. You know about garbage plates in Rochester, right? This late night city specialty just makes sense as a soak-up for a morning after, with hot dogs and macaroni salad sharing the platter with eggs, home fries and English muffins, plus a slathering of hollandaise. This is a great riff on Nick Tahoe's Classic, but in this case, Bob didn't care for the macaroni salad, and left it behind on his plate. I don't blame him; it looked very gloppy and yellow to me. Macaroni salad is such a personally subjective dish - most people only like their own family recipe. I'm one of those people, and in my world, mustard has no place in it.

The coffee at Higland Park Diner is a custom roast only available there, and it was strong and smooth. Our lovely, if brusque, waitress brought lots of it, despite how busy she was tending to the packed dining room, and I was grateful. I give the diner a seven out of 10 on the BHS scale. I admired the variety of food here, and the hall of fame hash and coffee were top notch, but some of the other elements lacked seasoning, for me. I can see why this place is packed on a Sunday morning - there's something here for everyone and the choices are staggering - but I recommend sticking to the corned beef.

Highland Park Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

That's all for this week, Hungries. If you're not already, please join the BHS Squad over on the Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group for more news, tips and Upstate NY food, and on Instagram and Twitter @BigHungryShelby. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Uneven Seas Abound at Riley’s by the River

A night out in the Bay is not something I’ve indulged in some time. There were many, in my 20s, when Skiffs Bar seemed a world away from Watertown, a place to meet people from all over the country and occasionally, a teacher I knew from high school. These days, though, Alexandria Bay can sometimes feel overly glaring for a more seasoned gal such as me. The touristy atmosphere and continual bustle sit in contrast to peaceful Clayton, which is more my style, generally speaking.

So I’ve been looking for the perfect dinner spot to write about in Alex Bay – to recapture the attraction I felt to this village in my younger days. Recently, we tried out Riley’s by the River to see how it fit.

Riley’s sits directly on James Street, front and center to all the action in Alexandria Bay, and across from Captain Thompson’s floating empire, which used to have its own restaurant, and which is owned by the same family. You can see the river from the windows dominating one wall of the dining room, and Uncle Sam Boat Tours’ launch space, which also is owned by the Riley’s family.

What’s not made up of windows inside Riley’s is all attractive dark wood and coffered ceilings – its innate elegance made more casual by bistro and pop culture-themed décor. A diner would be comfortable here either in a sundress or shorts and a t-shirt – the ambiance dictated by whoever happens to be eating, whether couples or families. When people are in the Bay, they’re mostly on vacation, and that easy feeling is reflected here.

We were impressed right away by the presentation of the shrimp cocktail ($10.99): five shot glasses lined on a white platter, layered with house made cocktail sauce, large, succulent steamed shrimp, a bite of lobster meat, and a slice of lemon. The cocktail sauce tasted tangy and fresh – unlike the somewhat stale flavor the stuff in the jar can have. The small bit of lobster topping each shrimp added sweetness to the overall flavor, and having a slice of lemon for each serving meant you never ran short of that hit of sharp citrus essence which so well pairs with fresh shellfish.

Loaded potato chips ($8.99) were every bit as junky and decadent as the shrimp cocktail was refined and modern, to our glee. Homemade crinkle cut fried potato chips formed the base of this dish, served on an old school sizzle platter. Perfectly cooked, tender and juicy pulled pork topped the chips, but unfortunately, there’s wasn’t much of it. I had to actively hunt for some to sample in order to take notes on its flavor, because there was so little of it – certainly not enough on the platter, as a whole, to have a bite of pork with each chip.

Cheddar cheese covered the chips, with scant drizzles of both BBQ sauce and ranch dressing. I was pleased with the ranch, as the cool, herbal flavor served to counter the aggressive sweetness BBQ can often bring to the party, but honestly, again, there was so little of both these sauces, most of the balancing was unnecessary. Mostly, this dish was melted cheese-covered chips – savory, crisp, but with much less BBQ flavor than we expected when we ordered it.

Our waitress was fun, joking and entertaining us, and we enjoyed her so much, we didn’t realize for a while that she was doing a lot more socializing than she was actually waiting on our table. Our dirty appetizer plates sat in in a pile in the middle of our table for the duration of the entrée course.

The vegetable Panini ($10.99) came dressed with one of my favorite ingredients: goat cheese. Have you tried it? First off, it’s tangy – with loads of flavor and personality but none of the salinity you get from feta. Secondly, it’s creamy – you can use it almost as a spread, to add moisture without the fatty, bland mouth feel of mayonnaise. It’s a brilliant sandwich cheese, honestly, and when paired with grilled vegetables, you get a wonderful combination of sweetness, earthy dimension, piquancy and richness. The toasty flatbread anchored the sandwich with charred flavor that just contributed more to the delight of eating this treat.

The sweet potato fries served alongside were not such a delight. These originated from the freezer, if I’m not mistaken, and were lacking the earthy sweetness and caramelized depth you usually get from a homemade sweet potato French fry. They were bland and undercooked.

Fettucine alfredo with shrimp ($20.99) was overall, fairly tasty, but I’m sad to report: the pasta was overcooked by a good bit, so the overall chew factor was gummy. The sauce was rich with cream but underwhelming when it came to the authentic, nutty aged flavor of real parmesan cheese. And for $21, only three shrimp were topping this massive bowl of pasta. Now, shrimp are what they call a loss leader in the restaurant business – people love to order this sweet seafood, but there’s typically no profit to the enterprise when they sell them, because the wholesale product is expensive and consumers typically won’t tolerate much mark-up. So skimping on portion size is not unusual for this product.

Conversely, pasta and cream are cheap, and since there was almost no real cheese flavor going on in this dish, I would suggest the price tag could have withstood a couple more crustaceans. Even the diner who ordered this, one of the easiest to please in my crew, was disappointed with how few shrimp were in her dinner. I don’t blame her. For $21, you needed to bring it with either great parmesan flavor or lots of shellfish, and this dish delivered neither.

The delmonico steak ($26.99) was sunk before it even got sailing, because while the menu at Riley’s brags that all the steaks are cut in-house, this thing was about a third of an inch thick – way too thin for this cut of meat. It was grievously overcooked from the requested medium, grisly and tough. What a shame that this typically rich, juicy protein was (forgive the pun) butchered so terribly.

I was excited for the mushroom compound butter served on top, but it had little seasoning, and couldn’t save the rubbery, bland protein upon which it was perched.

To further add insult, while the steamed broccoli florets were wonderfully fresh and cooked perfectly crisp-tender, there were only six small ones served with this $27 plate. The small baked potato was fine, but delivered with very little butter to fix it up. Since no bread course came with our meal, there was no extra on the table to steal for the spud.

A bigger portion size ruled the chicken parmesan ($16.99), which was anchored by a thick, ungainly fried breast, rather than a pounded cutlet. It was under-seasoned, and therefore tasted more like fried breading than anything else. A bright, loose tomato sauce seasoned with dried Italian seasoning coated a mountain of spaghetti surrounding the chicken. This was a huge pile of really uninspiring food, to me. As in, I was not inspired to eat more than a single bite of it. It all lacked the hallmarks of a classically authentic Italian-American red-sauce dish – the slow-cooked tomato gravy flavored with aromatic vegetables, garlic and fresh herbs, juicy, flash-fried protein, and aged cheese. This brought to mind a dish comprised of canned, jarred ingredients thrown together because chicken parmesan is a required item on north country menus, rather than a family recipe handed down through the generations.

Regrettably, things did not perk up with the fish tacos ($11.99). The crunchy fried cod nuggets nestled in these three flour tortillas were utterly flavorless. The lime slaw in there with them had a hint of personality, but not enough to save the white fish blandness. And rather than serve them with some salsa, a flavored crema, some pickled chile peppers, or any other kind of south of the border accoutrements, these came with a side of fries and ketchup.

Look, please don’t attempt Mexican food, or even Tex-Mex, if you can’t deliver on a single of its telltale flavors or ingredients, OK? Let’s agree to a pact on that. In fact, don’t attempt any ethnic cuisine if you aren’t familiar enough with its tenants to comprise a dish that makes sense. In San Diego, where fish tacos are king, the fish pieces would have been dressed with lime juice and salt immediately after leaving the fryer, then finished with crunchy cabbage, a white sauce perked up with ancho chile powder and maybe some avocado puree, and a fresh lime wedge alongside. Each taco would be topped with fresh cilantro. You need those verdant, strong ingredients to bring the fish to life. Otherwise, you’re stuck with what we got at Riley’s: a tasteless mouthful of flour tortilla with mild, plain fish and a tiny blip of sour citrus. No thank you.

Oooo-kay, let me step off my culinary soapbox. That was very preachy. I apologize. Apparently, I have big thoughts about chicken parm and fish tacos that I needed to work out. But you understand where I’m coming from, I hope? Even in a tourist town, you expect that if a dish is on a menu, there’s going to be some level of competence in its preparation. These two dishes illustrated that a lot of food is being served here just to make money rather than to really cater to the customer. If you’re going to be a professional cook, you’d better be able to actually execute the cuisine your kitchen promises to crank out. Or you’re not living up to your end of the bargain the diners make.

We plunged forward into dessert, even though, with the exception of the Panini, we had been really disappointed by the entrees. The coconut cream pie ($6.99) was homemade, and the stand out of the course. The pastry cream actually tasted like coconut and vanilla and wasn’t too sweet. The crust was a little blonde for me – I like a crunchier, darker and more developed flavor, but this was still a creamy, yummy dessert.

The skillet cookie ($6.99) oddly, was not cookie dough baked in a cast iron skillet, but instead a cookie placed in a skillet and warmed up. Now, a warm chocolate chip cookie is always better than a cold one, or no cookie at all for that matter, so I guess I can credit that; but to me, the whole point of the skillet is for the cookie to be caramelized and crunchy at the edges and warm and gooey in the center, which this was not, at all. The whole thing was crisped through, and even the melting vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce over top couldn’t save it.

We had been anticipating the salted caramel vanilla cream puff ($6.99) through the whole meal, because how good does that sound? But this was another creamy, but ultimately bland dish. Even the salted caramel failed to taste like anything at all. Where was the salt? The cream puff was denser than the word puff implies, and whatever filled it was unidentifiable, flat, flavorless goo.


If you remember way back to the shrimp cocktail, we had high hopes for this meal. That dish was creative, well-executed, tasty and somewhat inspired, with the twist of lobster topping each bite. The vegetable panini was good, as well, but just about every other dish that arrived at our table had major issues. None of it was worth its price, and the overall experience was underwhelming, especially considering that our fun, cheerful waitress kept on leaving dirty dishes at the table as she brought new ones to us. That’s a pet peeve of mine that’s hard to overlook when you consider that this casual dinner for five came to $158.92.

I give Riley’s by the River a five on the BHS scale. While the view commanded a high rating and things began so well early in the meal, dinner here is, frankly, not worth what it costs. Diners in Northern New York work too hard for their money to waste it on overcooked, poorly cut steaks, three shrimp drowning in a sea of overcooked pasta, or utterly bland, non-seasoned food. I dislike even more the notion of visitors experiencing a meal like this and thinking this is the best we have to offer when a view of the St. Lawrence is at stake.

I hope such hungry travellers, instead, will find their way to Foxy’s in Fisher’s Landing, or the Seaway Grille inside the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton, where they might enjoy a glorious sunset over the river plus a terrific meal. This was an uneven repast, for us, and I find myself frustrated that, despite a couple of decent dishes, I can’t recommend this well-positioned eatery to diners looking for a great dinner with a view.
Riley's by the River Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Stop back soon, as I'll have reports from Rochester and Saratoga Springs, plus more from NNY and the Southern Tier right here on the blog. We may no longer have food reviews in the Watertown Daly Times, but I promise not to fail you here! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


How Lucky I Am

This morning, I received a call from my editor at the Watertown Daily Times that a writer never wants to receive. It's no secret that print media is shrinking (or maybe sinking is a more apt description). People just don't subscribe to newspapers anymore, and most small, regional papers have not figured out how to make online advertising work without the augmentation of subscriptions. And so, I was notified that Big Hungry Shelby, and the Times' Sunday food critique column altogether, has been cancelled, effective immediately.

That means the review I spent three hours on yesterday morning will not even be published next week. It means the legacies of former critics Floyd Misek and Walter Siebel have ended with me, without enough notice to give them the proper tribute. It also means that small, mom and pop restaurants in Northern New York, whose businesses were very often bolstered by the column, and that would struggle to afford direct advertising, will suffer from a lack of exposure. I'm grieving for it all, if I may indulge my more dramatic side for a bit. 

I knew I probably couldn't carry this gig forever. Living in the Southern Tier and traveling more than two hours north at least once a month to eat nonstop for a weekend, so that I would have enough restaurants to write about week in and week out, was a punishing practice. But I never imagined that my tenure would end with such short notice, nor that the Times was in such circumstances as to have to cut what I was told was one of its top features, from a readership standpoint, with no forewarning. But reviewing restaurants is not a frugal endeavor. Retaining a weekly food critic costs the paper not only a writer's fee, but also reimbursement of the meals and the mileage, and I'm sure that line item loomed large in an organization needing to prioritize news over fluffy food coverage.

I'll miss writing my column. I'll miss the comraderie I've started to form with chefs in the region, though I hope to continue those, in some fashion, with the blog. I hope my readers from the paper join me here, where the geographic aperture is wider, but the criticism and zeal for great food remains. But most of all, I'll miss the Times' Sunday food column, be it written by me or anyone else. It's something I've read religiously since I was a little girl, and I think our community will be worse off in its absence. Now that we've lost this weekly peek into the best (and worst) cuisine Northern New York has to offer, I hope the readers don't decamp to chain restaurants. I hope they keep giving locally owned eateries a try. Otherwise, we may have another industry altogether start to sink.


Greater Binghamton's Mexican Food Drought

I've lived in the greater Binghamton area for more than 15 years now, and while this area is lousy with top notch Italian food, holds its own with a breadth of Asian eateries, and is now rounding out its better nouveau American options, great Mexican restaurants can never quite maintain a toe hold here.

Los Tapatios used to be really decent, until the Mexican family running it had to leave and new owners took over and promptly excised all flavor from the menu. Margaritas, out on Upper Front St., similarly once was terrific and then new ownership killed it. It's not even open now. Las Chicas Taqueria, in Owego, has fab food, but I never quite feel the decadence and relaxation of the Mexican restaurant experience I want there, due to the counter service and a la carte style of the menu. It feels more like fast food than a full service restaurant, which is fine for lunch, but doesn't quite suit my fancy for dinner.

So when I heard Garage Taco Bar was opening in Binghamton, I was justifiably pumped. I figured, with Binghamton's latest restaurant renaissance, this would be the taco joint I've been waiting for. Big Hungry Melinda and I ventured there last week to give it a taste.

The indoor/outdoor space is very cool and very different from the norm around these parts. It made me think of Austin or Portland - hip and casual. What I liked less than the decor was the entire service set-up. At Garage, you order at the counter, pick up your own food at the counter, and get your own drinks from the bar. So there's no table service, which would be fine if the bar wasn't actually slower than the kitchen, meaning that a lady is left to wonder if she should leave the bartender who's in process on her drinks to grab her food, or get a table first and the risk leaving her purse unattended there while she runs the errand of fetching drinks? The food gets cold while you're waiting at the bar...the hassle is complicated and frankly, more logistics than I want wrapped into a night out. Call me old, but I like to be served at my table by a waitress. The cafeteria style deal might work if not for the full bar, but with the time differences between how quickly food is prepared here and how long it takes to get drinks, I have heard from more than one person that it is decidedly not working. I concur.

But it remains to be seen if Garage's owners will tinker with the service mode here; meantime, let's talk about the food, shall we? We started with chips and guacamole, but never got to try them until all our food had come due to the hold-up at the bar, which kind of stole this starter's thunder. That said, we liked the guac. It was impeccably fresh, dancing with subtle citrus juice, and a little bit of garlic. Not a lot of texture to it - this was a smooth avocado mash. The chips were fresh and a little too plentiful. We ran out of guac long before we got through the tortilla chips, which is another bit of fine-tuning easily addressable by a new resto.

At the bar, Melinda ordered margaritas and asked what kind of tequila they had. We're fancy tequila folks and were interested in upgrading to a silver variety. The barkeep gave her a quizzical look and told her they only stock one tequila, a gold bottle she'd never heard of - not even Cuervo or Patron. They have a frozen marg machine that debuted last week, but just the one kind of tequila - doesn't hat seem odd for a taco "bar?" One way to afford to hire some wait staff, guys, is to encourage people to do shots at your bar. Some upscale tequilas would help that endeavor. In any event, our margaritas were icy, which is good, but very lacking in any flavor other than sour mix. Hard pass.

The Tex-Mex joint of my dreams not only has some options where tequila is concerned, but also some signature house margaritas incorporating fresh fruits and maybe even some chiles. The choice between this and a generic frozen marg is, for me, not really a choice.

I tried the carnitas and carne asado tacos for my main. I liked them much better than the margarita, but both proteins were lacking in vivid flavors. The carnitas did have a good kick of cumin in its pineapple salsa, but the cheese was utterly flavorless, and whereas a traditional pork carnitas tacos would be dressed with raw onion and lime juice, this communicated more muted flavors. The pork was tender and plentiful, and the two small corn tortillas were right on. Tasty, but not tremendous. The carne asada, or diced steak, was more bland, begging for spice. Here's something weird: there was no spice to be had. There is no salsa bar or bottles of hot sauce on the tables here; no way to kick up the tacos. Have you ever been in a Mexican restaurant with no hot sauce and no salsa? Me neither. If Garage Taco Bar is trying something new, it may be a bit lost on me. And with no waitress stopping by to ask us if we needed anything, I would have had to again haul my cookies up to the front to ask for such condiments. 

I should mention that the crunchy radishes on the tacos did add texture and that slight sharp edge, which was lovely. The ingredients in both were well executed, just lacking in a little verve, for me. My kingdom for some Cholula!

I chose black beans and rice as my sides. The rice was well seasoned and well cooked, flavorful and easy to shovel in. The black beans, however, were the dullest ones I've ever tasted. It's not hard to kick up black beans. A scoop of pico de gallo and a packet of Goya Sazon, plus some onion and garlic are all a batch needs to be savory and deeply flavored. These just tasted like plain boiled beans with zero pizazz. Another pass for me.

Melinda ordered the slaw as a side - one more pass. It wasn't slaw so much as just quick pickled cabbage, which is a lovely topping for a fish taco, and maybe would be good on the carnitas taco too, but is under no condition a suitable dish to stand on its own as a side. It was sugar, vinegar, and cabbage. Blah.

I realize we were remiss in not trying the queso and plantains. I promise to go back and put them on my list, but I think I'll wait awhile. Honestly, I just really prefer to eat at a full service restaurant, or at least a place where I order at the counter and then the food is brought to the table. The lack of condiments seems, to me, like something the management may figure out in due time, as is the odd discord between food service and bar service here. I'm sorry if I sound lazy, all not wanting to get up and go ask for condiments, but honestly, isn't some of that what we pay for when we dine out? Just a bit of service?

I give Garage Taco Bar at temporary five on the BHS scale, but I'm really hoping they work out the kinks, because I'm rooting for this place to step up and become the Mexican food paradise we so sorely need here. With just a few improvements, I'd really love to gorge myself on awesome, inspired tacos and tequila, and then give Garage Taco Bar an eight or a nine. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

The Garage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato