All I’ve heard anyone talk about for days has been the weather — but I can’t really blame them, given how gorgeous it’s been. Except perhaps for my neighbor, who’s been harrumphing about how this mild winter probably means we’re going to have another scorching summer. Yep, maybe we are. Who cares? All the more reason to get out and enjoy the sun while it’s still set on “reheat” rather than “burn to crisp.”
That being said, I’m not a big fan of patio dining. I prefer bug-proof barriers, predictable heating and cooling, and a wind factor of zero. But I had friends in town from the Frozen North recently, for whom our current weather is a thing of beauty and wonder. Who was I to burst their bubble by telling them that in March, the weather here could just as easily have included snow, 90-degree heat, or tornados? To the patios we went.
The first was at Joe T. Garcia’s (2201 N. Commerce St.) because, really, can you name a more beautiful place to dine al fresco in this town? Notice I didn’t say “place to get better Mexican food.” But hey, the out-of-towners probably wouldn’t know the difference. [pullquote_left]Conclusion: Eat elsewhere, then go to Joe T’s for the margaritas.[/pullquote_left]
The line to the patio wrapped around the block — you’d have thought Elvis was playing at some girl’s quinceañera. When we were finally seated, next to the crystalline pool, the surroundings were almost enough to make me forget about the food. Almost. The place was absolutely crawling with people, but the service was fast, if hurried. There are only two menu items, fajitas (chicken or beef) and the family-style dinner ($11.95). I opted for the latter, which featured two greasy, soggy nachos, two burned and bitter cheese enchiladas, and two tacos, the shells of which were also soggy and eventually broke like a wet paper sack. My guest’s chicken fajitas ($13.95) were much better. Though the chicken was flavorless, the creamy guacamole masked that and any other flavor issues. Conclusion: Eat elsewhere, then go to Joe T’s for the margaritas.
The next day I took them to one of my favorite little gems, Piola Restaurant and Garden (3700 Mattison Av.). There’s something very comforting about a restaurant located in a house, tucked away in a neighborhood. The patio has an upscale backyard vibe, and we felt like we were at a fancy catered outdoor party.
I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start a meal than the antipasti ($8.95) of fried green olives, fried stuffed artichokes, capicola (an Italian pork cold cut), Italian sausage, fresh fruit, and a trio of cheeses: goat, fontina, and manchego. The dish struck a salty, creamy balance, and the fruit added a much-needed touch of sweetness. If you like big-flavored fish, the pan-seared sea bass with porcini mushroom crust and polenta ($18.95) is bold and in-your-face. The oil of the sea bass and strong earthiness of the mushroom crust hit my palate like a balled-up fist of flavor. If you want something a little lighter, the vegetable sandwich ($6.95) with portobello mushrooms, grilled eggplant, baby spinach, caramelized onions, and gorgonzola cheese is fresh and delicious.
My guests went home jealous of our weather and impressed with Piola’s, which thankfully delivers quality experiences much more consistently than do the weather gods. I’m glad my friends were here for our oh-so-short (in my opinion) al fresco season. I’m going to go home now and enjoy it in my own way: Sitting in my house — by the window — eating Piola’s leftovers.
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