I spent a lot of time in Chicago wistfully searching for the right dirty little Mexican restaurant in which to get my dirty little Mexican food fix. I wasn’t looking for gourmet, I wasn’t looking for upscale. I didn’t want to try Rick Bayless’s latest venture (well, okay, yes I did, but that’s not my point). I wanted street corner, hole-in-the-wall, greasy, gooey food that might be as delicious as it is potentially deadly.
One of my friends, knowing my proclivity for down and dirty Mexican grub couldn’t believe I hadn’t been to Jose & Tony’s, a combination dive bar and dive restaurant in the area. I had passed by it, certainly, but had never ventured in. Seeing as it was amidst the happiest of hours and we were both in need of a cheap drink and an even cheaper taco, he took me over there to try the place out.
This is a trying time for dives. Used to be that dives received special consideration from visitors and subsequent critics. Now that everyone gets to be a critic, slamming a place is as easy as going on Urbanspoon and writing about how terrible the food was, how cheesy the decor, how rundown and slightly unkempt a place is. In the cluttered world of online reviewing, dives are no longer held apart for their unique charms.
It’s an especially trying time for dives because they are still considered, and will probably always be considered, cool, at least in some respects. Young hipsters like dives because they bring them face to face with the common man. They also like them because they tend to be really cheap, allow smoking, and half empty.
But people are starting to ask more of dive bars and restaurants then just being half empty, smokey, and cheap. The normal, discriminating, non-hip diner got wind of the whole dive appeal and sought to understand it for his or her self. And that’s when the secret was blown: A chock full of charm as they are, many of these places serve food that is just this side of mediocre.
The dim lighting and the dingy surroundings might be okay for the place’s base clientele, but here these people had made a special trip in to try a place and all they were getting was mediocre food and stares from the regulars. A show like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives may make every place seem like a big family, but most dives have their own inherent, unstated rules for their regular customers.
A show like DDD also shows a place in the best possible light, which means that obvious attractions of a dive, like smoking, would be removed for the purposes of filming. You can’t have Guy Fieri marching into a smoke-filled bar to declare its meatballs and roast beef unbelievable. The clean-cut nature of the Food Network would simply not allow it.
Anyway, I’ve gotten off the subject. But yes, for dives, these are hard times. Only in a theoretical sense. Most of these places have owners who couldn’t give a damn about what some one-time customer has to say about their restaurant’s draft list and hamburgers. These places build a reputation on the people who come in time and time again. They don’t really need to be courting outsiders.
As for me? Well, I felt right at home. Wes ordered a Deluxe California Burrito, which came before us a gooey, gloppy mess of delicious. The sheer amount of sour cream would have grossed out my vegan partner, but I had to say, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant over use a condiment to such a delightful extreme. I noticed from a quick bite that the enchilada sauce had a little heat to it, which worked especially well with all that cool sour cream.
I ordered a bean taco in a flour tortilla and a chicken taco in a corn tortilla. There were some decent ingredients underneath the fearsome layer of shredded iceberg. The beans were maybe a tad over cooked, a little sludgy and heavy, but the chicken was surprisingly tender and flavorful. For two bucks, they weren’t going to be the freshest, best tacos, but they were certainly superior to their fast food counterpart. I got what I expected, no more, no less.
Restaurant standards are a personal issue. I personally don’t like going to most Italian restaurants, because no matter the quality, I always feel kind of ripped off (of course there are exceptions). Many people would probably not want to go to Jose & Tony’s because they would be looking for a standard of service, atmosphere, and food quality that is simply not in line with this kind of operation. If it helps to think of it as a bar with tacos, then think of it that way.
I got my greasy taco fix, I got to share a pitcher of margaritas for an insanely low price, and I got to catch up on the Women’s World Cup (blaring from a large TV in the corner). You could do a whole heck of a lot worse for a Monday evening.