Basic Training

Lo Esencial has promise, but food needs seasoning

The menu at Lo Esencial (basics in Spanish) is small (usually a good sign) and concentrates on all the basics, such as hamburgers, sandwiches, steak, tacos, burros and the like (again, usually a good sign). One would think that with such simple parameters that the kitchen could concentrate on putting out great versions of their food.

Sadly, that isn't the case at Lo Esencial. After two visits and sampling a half dozen or so of the "basics," we walked away feeling less than satisfied.

I am a big believer that food at a restaurant should come to the table properly salted. Not too much, of course, but certainly not too little. A salt shaker should be almost unnecessary. Now I can almost hear the naysayers and health proponents pounding away at their keyboards telling me that Americans eat too much salt, that restaurant food is too salty, that diners should be able to determine how much salt is put on their food. To that I say bull hockey. Salt brings out the flavors in food and if used during preparation and with a polished hand, salt will make everything taste better. The food won't be too salty; it'll just taste good.

We chose the avocado fries ($8) from a very limited starter menu. Here an avocado had been cut up in to four pieces, rolled in a crumb coating, fried and then served with two dipping sauces; one pink and one green. Interesting, but the large slices made for awkward eating and although the coating was relatively crunchy the sauces were so bland it was hard to tell what they were. The pink sauce was mayo based but that's really all you could taste. The green was probably tomatillo sauce but it needed a little zing. What was lacking was salt.

The same could be said of the Tortolita burger ($12) that comes with bacon, fire-roasted chilies, choice of cheese (in this case cheddar), grilled red onions, aioli and avocado. There was so much wrong with this burger it's difficult to know where to start. First, it came on a pretzel bun that was just too small for the good sized patty. It was almost impossible to pick up. And then there was the texture of the meat. I ordered it pink in the middle and it was, but the outside of the burger seemed as though it hadn't spent much time on the grill. The texture was a real turn-off. Instead of a couple of slices, the cheese was finely shredded and thus disappeared almost at once. The onions and chilies had no flavor (again due to lack of seasoning) and if there was garlic in the aioli I couldn't taste it. The end result was that I left half of the burger on the plate. It was inedible.

Another basic, the fish and chips ($14) was also disappointing. Two pieces of white fish had been battered and fried but there was more batter than fish and that was greasy. The fries were undercooked and under seasoned.

The two other entrees didn't fare much better. The flat iron steak ($18) was ordered medium but came a little more toward well-done. Sliced and fanned on the plate, the meat was tender from a marinade that, thankfully, added some flavor. A small bowl of au jus was a nice touch. The salad looked nice but not much to write home about and the fries, even though they were sizzling hot, still tasted undercooked.

There wasn't much to the chicken enchiladas ($12) or the beans or the rice that came with it. Two sauces topped the enchiladas: one red and one green. There wasn't enough of the red and the green was interesting but, like just about everything else, was bland.

The high point of the meal was the side of calabacitas ($4) that consisted of a nice mix of zucchini, corn, black beans, chilies and cheese topped with crema. Each element was done well and then all came together nicely.

Not counting ice cream there are only two desserts on the menu; churros with chocolate sauce ($6) and chocolate lava cake ($6).

Now, churros are one of my most favorite desserts: the crispy outside, a dusting of cinnamon sugar, the insides so soft they could pass as cream. Hot out of a fryer, they rock. But the churros were a big disappointment. Way too much cinnamon, to start with and that creamy inside had been fried away.

The lava cake that came with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream can be described in a word, meh.

The thing is, the service was on top of things. You're seated at the table and in seconds they bring chips and salsa (not a bad one, actually) and water. The check on you in a timely manner. The smiles are genuine.

The décor is sleek and simple with splashes of Southwestern colors and big circular mobiles hanging from the industrial ceiling.

And, thanks to manager Chris Leonard formerly of the highly popular, Nonie, the wine list is well-built with a reserve list that rivals many in the area.

The bar seemed like a lively place on both visits.

Lo Esencial has plenty of potential. They score points for their hospitality and the wine program. The location in Marana is a bustling area. Perhaps the kitchen is still trying to figure things out.

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