Written by Eric Taubert Saturday, 01 May 2010 18:18
One of the most challenging aspects of food writing is "keeping it real". I like to think of the food writer as a public servant. In this age of computer-based opinions, it can sometimes be tough to separate the honest experience from the false praise. The internet, along with the rise of social media and consumer opinion websites, have forced food readers to become more sophisticated, more savvy. Certain questions arise. "Is this bad review from a competing restaurant? Is this good review from the owner? Have advertising dollars contributed in any way to what I'm reading here?" Not everything is as it seems. A local food writer with a consistent track record of honest opinion is one of the few resources the dining public can turn to before they spend their hard-earned dollars. Let's face it; nothing is worse than buyer's remorse at a restaurant.
I take my job seriously. I'll admit it up front...I'm a picky diner. This is part of what people love and hate about me. I bring my true opinion of each restaurant I visit to my readers and viewers every time - thoughts shaped through decades of experience working in the restaurant, hospitality, and marketing industries. I know the secrets and tricks of the restaurant world. I know quality and value when I see it. I'm eclectic -- I love everything from local hole-in-the-wall simplicity to haute cuisine. And I judge restaurants based on what they are trying to be, not what I think they should be. Most importantly, I understand that what I have to say is just one opinion -- yours may differ and I encourage you to share it with me and my readers. Nothing is more satisfying to me than to see the free flow of thoughts a great discussion about food can create.
It was a spate of positive reviews, both online and in our local media, which brought me to my lunchtime visit of Azucar Restaurant and Bakery on Del Prado Boulevard on Cape Coral. The exterior is pure Del Prado strip mall, no curb appeal and ugly signage.
The interior is pleasantly bright, comfortable, and appropriately decorated with signed photographs of famous Hispanic and Latino entertainers. Up-tempo Cuban music was a welcome addition to the atmosphere. Half of the space houses a well stocked bakery; the other half is a big, open dining room. It's much nicer inside than you'd expect from the outside. Although it was full noon, Azucar was empty -- never a good sign. No pleasant greeting. A woman who appeared to be managing the restaurant was seated at a table eating. She advised us to, "Sit wherever you want."
Within a few moments, a friendly and enthusiastic waitress approached our table with menus and took our drink order....two Cuban coffees.
The Cuban coffees arrived within a couple minutes looking incredible and tasting even better. Sweet, creamy, strong, a sublime balance of taste and texture. I was beginning to get excited for the meal I was about to order.
The menu at Azucar is moderately extensive with separate sections for Breakfast, Sandwiches, Appetizers, Lunch, and Dinner. Sandwiches are $5 to $8. Lunch offerings are about $8 to $12. Selections from the dinner menu are $11 to $30, with most in the $15 range. Lots of Spanish on the menu with simple explanations in italics. It reads like a laundry list of Cuban Cuisine classics with a dash of Spanish influence - Churrasco, Empanada's, Enchilado de Camarones, Media Noche, Paella Valenciana.
The server, while pleasant, offered no direction, recommendations, or menu knowledge. The few simple questions about the menu we did pose were avoided, or not answered well. We were forced to go it alone.
My dining partner ordered the El Clasico -- billed as pork in a Caribbean Mojo sauce. She was offered the option of two sides. She chose Maduros (sweet fried plantains) and mashed potatoes. I ordered an appetizer -- Las Mariquitas (long banana chips served with Mojo sauce) and a Classic Cuban Sandwich.
Before long our Las Mariquetas were delivered to the table with a couple share plates. Paper thin, grease free, and with a rich golden hue -- the starchy sweetness of these crisp banana chips really shined through. The Mojo dipping sauce was in a ramekin too small for any effective and mess-free dipping. The heavy oil content of the dipping sauce created a small mess on the table without really adding any benefits to the appetizer.
Midway through our appetizer, the main courses appeared.
My dining partner's El Clasico was uninspired from presentation to flavor. Horrid, fatty, chunks of inedible scrap pork being passed off as a meal. These are the pieces of meat which should have been ground up and used another way -- definitely not served the way they were here. What small bites could be gleaned from between the layers of fat and sinew were dry and mostly flavorless. Admittedly, a certain amount of fat on meat like this is to be expected, and often helps the flavor profile and moistness of the pork. I'm not being a prima donna here -- this dish was borderline Bizarre Food, and I'm no Andrew Zimmern. The side of mashed potatoes was below average at best - with a fresh from the box texture. The Maduros (fried sweet plantains) were the only thing worth eating on the plate; super-ripe plantains lightly caramelized through the frying process -- a classic taste experience borne of Central America and the Caribbean Islands.
The Classic Cuban Sandwich I ordered was composed of ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, copious amounts of mustard, and mayonnaise flattened within pressed Cuban bread and accompanied by a small mound of fried potato sticks. All of the classic elements were present and accounted for -- and while this was certainly a passable, even slightly enjoyable, sandwich...it was still a letdown. The meat was all cold cuts, no succulent pulled pork. The condiments were overdone. All in all, this was more of a supermarket-style Cuban sandwich -- I expected more from a real-deal, sit-down, Cuban restaurant. I've had much better Cuban sandwiches at several non-Cuban restaurants in the surrounding few miles. I chalk it up as a missed chance for Azucar to shine.
The server appeared table-side a few bites in, and asked if we were enjoying everything. When we explained our concerns about the El Clasico dish, our server awkwardly apologized several times and informed us that "in some other countries people enjoy eating deep fried fat." She then apologized a few more times, and walked away from the table. Our server relayed our concerns in rapid-fire Spanish to the woman who originally advised us to, "Sit wherever you want". They looked at us, the only people in the dining room, for a few moments while clearly speaking in Spanish about us. Then they both disappeared behind the scenes. No further action was taken on the issue.
Restaurant Lesson #1: If you don't plan on fixing issues with your food - don't ask if there are any...it only opens a can of worms.
A few minutes later, our server ran across the empty dining room, dropped our check on the table, and ran away again. No adjustment was made for the uneaten meal.
I am granting Azucar Restaurant and Bakery a rating of Neutral. Bottom line - nothing special to see here. They score points for the nice dining room, Cuban Coffee, Las Mariquetas, and Maduros. They lose points for the poor quality pork, the mashed potatoes, and abysmal customer service. I know Azucar has a small following of vocal online fans...unfortunately, whatever charm they find in the place was not on display during my recent visit.
And, thus, we have a case study of one of the problems of being a local food writer -- blatant mediocrity. There's nothing I want more than to sing the praises of our local mom and pop dining establishments. I go into each restaurant hoping for that great meal to write about, yet, so few of our local restaurants are doing anything to raise the bar on Cape Coral dining standards. I wish they cared as much as I do.
-- writing, photography, and video by Eric Taubert
Join Southwest Florida Barometer on Facebook: SWFL Barometer Fanpage
Join us on Twitter: @erictaubert