Pick 6 - Editors Picks from Past Week

Saturday, Feb 22 2014 09:00 AM

PETE TITTL: Muertos experience makes you feel alive

  1. 1 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    No time for idle lunchtime chit-chat when the food comes out at Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, a downtown favorite as much for the soulful ambience as the kitchen.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    If it’s Wednesday, it’s chili verde day at Muertos.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    What could match the exquisite decor of Muertos Kitchen and Lounge? Why the menu of course!

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Not hungry but a tad thirsty? Then mosey on up to the bar at Muertos Kitchen and Lounge for an ice-cold beverage as this customer did! The restaurant has a number of excellent beers on tap as well as an extensive offering of IPAs and wines.

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  5. 5 of 5

    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Sure they’re regulars at Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, but Dan Trevino, left, and Cedric Perez still take time to decide which of the menu items they want to try for lunch.

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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist

Muertos is one of those restaurants that never seems to be the same place on any particular visit. It has a restlessness, a need to evolve that has been present since the place opened in 2012, and the struggle, the pursuit to find just what works best, is what keeps people coming through the door.

I've written good things in the past about the idiosyncratic choices on the menu (a "halibut salsa" that is an exceptional ceviche, the Hudson burger with the bacon and fried egg, the salmon tacos) and the fantastic exposed-brick atmosphere that is old, genuine and has such a charming impact in creating an inviting atmosphere. Owner Shawna Haddad-Byers used to operate the larger, now-defunct Fishlips before she opened this place, but I think the smaller space and the direction her kitchen has taken with the menu makes it a better fit for her personality.

Related Info

MUERTOS KITCHEN & LOUNGE

1514 Wall St.

324-2557

facebook.com/pages/Muertos-Kitchen-and-Lounge/427183267301272?fref=ts

Hours: 11 a.m to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday.

Prices: "Food to Share," $4 to $14; salads, $9 to $17; burgers and sandwiches, $8 to $15; taco plates, $7 to $15; no child's menu.

Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full bar service; some vegetarian options.

Food: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Service: ***

Value: ***1/2

Where to start is difficult. It seems like a bar when you walk in, though they ask for you to wait to be seated, and Shawna is usually the one to do so. There are excellent beers on tap, including Guinness and Negra Modelo and so many more available in cans or bottles. My personal favorites are on the list of 13 IPAs, many of which I've never tried before like the Firestone Wookey Jack Black Rye ale IPA ($12 for a 22-ounce bottle). What I appreciated was the note at the bottom of the IPA menu warning there were no refunds and advising not to consider the list if you aren't familiar with Indian Pale Ales. If you have a Bud Light palate, you won't find these inviting, and you can't assume customers will know that. But that IPA was like an interesting wine, with citrus notes amidst the familiar rye grain taste.

This is a place about choices. On another visit I tried the famous blood orange jalapeno margarita ($7), and it was sweeter and spicier than any conventional margarita. They have a pomegranate drink on the specials list, and I watched the bartender working with fresh fruit to create it. This is the sort of place where once you try something new it's likely to make future visits more stressful. (For the record, the wine list is varied, including Central Coast, Washington and Napa product, and the by-the- glass pours are generous.)

On the menu some things have left us (an appropriate expression given the restaurant's name), such as the chicken with okra that was a dish of Haddad-Byers' grandmother. What remains is what the owner calls "a collection of my favorite foods," which means an appetizer list labeled "Food to Share" that includes popcorn pork ($9) and "deep-fried drive-in burrito" ($6), as well as a few salads and a considerable list of burgers, sandwiches and tacos.

My own preference is the tacos, which are presented in paper-lined plastic baskets and shine due to the incredible ingredients: shrimp, halibut, machaca, seared ahi tuna or two that we ordered on recent visits: carne asada ($8) and Basque lamb ($12). The carne was presented "brown style," which I believe refers to searing the meat in the cooking process. Covered with white onions and cilantro, it was beautiful in its simplicity. I couldn't keep my companion's hands out of the basket.

A similar event happened when she ordered the lamb tacos on another visit. What makes these so alluring is not the perfect dose of garlic on the lamb (we'll get back to that tendency in the kitchen) but the blue cheese crumbles that are a perfect match.

On another visit I ordered the steak dinner sandwich ($15) while my companion got the grilled salmon special ($16) with rice and vegetables. The sandwich came with garlic fries, and what I most appreciated was the perfect proportion of garlic on the potatoes. I've ordered "stinky fries" at Lengthwise, Rabobank Arena and other restaurants around town and if I have hopes of any inoffensive social interactions in the next 48 hours, I need to brush aside most of the topping. Here, with a bit of shredded cheese on top, I can consume the product without restraint.

On the tacos you see a strength of the kitchen is the design of the dishes, and I saw similar alluring pairings with the steak sandwich. The strips of sirloin had been grilled and cut into chunks, then combined with grilled onions, blue cheese, baby spinach leaves and bacon mayo. Bacon mayo is popping up everywhere, and by 2015 we may be as weary of it as red velvet cake, but the whole thing comes together spectacularly. My only gripe was that the French roll it was served on was not grilled. That flaw was noticeable.

The salmon was simply grilled and not as fresh as we've had in the past on the tacos, but the salad presented before the entree had a great Mediterranean vinaigrette that my companion wished she could take home.

(Perhaps the salmon was just part of a bad day, which applied to service as well. The day we were there, the fit young man who's usually the bartender was pressed into service as our waiter, and we and other customers nearby had unreasonable gaps in service. I'll bet he was covering for someone who called in sick, as our waitress on another recent visit was appropriately attentive and very professional, and the bartender stuck to bartending.)

The thin green beans on the plate were prepared with mushrooms, which was an inviting addition, but the texture was off on the beans -- they were a bit springy and that made me wonder about their freshness.

The sparse menu is supplemented by nightly specials that typically include chili verde on Wednesdays. There are desserts available from the Window Sill Pie Co., but we never seem to have room for any.

But even with the great food, the real draw to me is the cool, edgy space, the genuine character, the shrine to the owner's grandmother near the front door, the black shirts on the staff with the restaurant's slogan, "I'm here for a good time ... I'm not here for a long time." The walls are lined with posters and memorabilia from the musicians like Merle Haggard who played at Fishlips. On the webpage it says the building was a stable back in the late 1800s, and I can believe that.

This is the complete package. You can understand why Rahm Fama from Food Network stopped in to visit last November when he was in town.

Muertos Kitchen & Lounge can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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