Our lunch visit at Si! Grille, which touts its menu as featuring modern Mexican food, proved to be a great time, even though we were under a time constraint. The sun was shining; the service was sincerely friendly and professional; the food was good.
Chips and salsa were on the table in a matter of minutes. These were presented in a two-tiered metal holder, which was a unique touch.
John ordered the tostadas ($7.95), which come with either shredded chicken or beef barbacoa; John chose the beef. I ordered two fish tacos ($6.95). We stuck with ice water to drink, because we had things to do after lunch.
Our water was refilled. The salsa was refreshed. And we didn't have a long wait, in spite of the fact that people were arriving at a regular pace.
The ideas behind much of the food at Si! Grille come from "different" ways of cooking Mexican food. For example, the tostadas came with refried black beans instead of the ubiquitous pintos. Served atop two crisp corn tortillas, the beans complemented the savory, shredded beef nicely. There was plenty of the lightly spiced meat, along with lettuce, tomatoes, crema and cotijo cheese. With the fluffy red rice, this dish was definitely a good-sized lunch.
The fish in my tacos included mahi-mahi, which had been seasoned with lemon pepper and chili powder. It was then grilled to a golden brown, which sealed in all those contrasting flavors. Shredded cabbage, a jalapeño tartar sauce and pico salsa added heat, crunch and smoothness.
After such a nice experience, we looked forward to a dinner visit. To get a full feel for Si! Grille, we dined indoors (also, the patio was packed with a huge party from a car club). The dining room is painted mustard yellow, with Mexican lights on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. There's a teeny bar along the back wall (had I designed the room, I would have put the open kitchen along that wall and the bar in the front where you walk in, but ... ).
I understand the impact a huge party can have on a staff and the kitchen--but I don't think that was the reason for such a different experience that night.
First of all, there was a "band," which consisted of a singer and one of those electronic multi-musical-instrument units. The music was good, but it was way too loud for such a small space. And in the hour-plus we were there, it never really stopped.
There was also an uncomfortable buzz of activity on the part of the staff. People were scurrying around (sans our sweet server, who kept her cool throughout), and this added an odd vibe to the place.
And then there was the food.
For an appetizer, we ordered the cilantro panela cheese ($8.25), which was described as "panela cheese sticks lightly sautéed in olive oil and garlic, covered with green tomatillo sauce and topped with fresh cilantro and roasted sesame seeds." For his entrée, John ordered the mochomo ($10.95)--a made-up word--which consisted of deep-fried pork carnitas, served with guacamole, sour cream, salsa and corn tortillas. I ordered the chicken mole poblano ($11.95). This came with my choice of sides, and I opted for calabacitas. We also ordered a beer apiece.
While the beers were ice-cold and refreshing, the rest of the meal was anything but. The cheese appetizer was not at all appealing to the eye. There was way too much of the weird-looking tomatillo sauce, and the cheese was slightly burnt.
The carnitas were supposed to be made into "the best tacos in the world." In the newspaper business, we are told to avoid absolutes, and I'd suggest that folks in the restaurant business do the same. The meat was fried to the point of losing all recognizable flavor; if we hadn't known it was pork, we would never have guessed that's what it was. The guacamole and other toppings saved the dish, but just barely.
I was truly disappointed with my mole. Instead of the cooked-to-fall-apart tender meat that marries complex layers of chocolate, seed and spices, the chicken here was a breast that had only met the sauce minutes before it was served. Again, there was no eye appeal. The chicken was slightly tough, and the sauce was bland.
Dessert was also disappointing. We ordered the strawberry tamale duo ($6.95). We had to wait more than 20 minutes for the dish, and when it finally arrived, the tamales were tough and certainly not sweet; the strawberry sauce was cloying.
While I understand that the owners at Si! Grille are attempting to give Tucsonans another way of looking at Mexican food--and that a busy night can slam even the finest eateries--I get the feeling that maybe they're trying a little too hard. Their food presentation needs a little work, and a deep breath or two would go a long way toward helping them achieving their goals.