At the end of my second meal at the new Besito in Ardmore, our server put a curious little doll the size of a penny at our place settings as a parting gift.
"They're Mexican worry dolls!" he said. If we put them under our pillows at night, all our worries would be gone by morning, he said.
Hmmm . . . I'm generally not a big worrier. But the more I cradled this tiny figurine of sticks and colorful yarn in my palm, mulling the numerous lowlights of two disappointing meals at this expensive Mexican chain, a whole fiesta of worries suddenly began brewing in my brain.
I worried, for example, that my first meal's server was actually a long-lost friend I'd failed to recognize. She called me mi amor so many times - from the moment she gracefully mashed an avocado into guacamole beside my table to the end of our meal when she noticed my half-eaten plate of enchiladas - I felt a sudden blush when she asked: "Did you not like your mole Poblano, mi amor?"
Suddenly shy to pipe up and disappoint her, I couldn't bring myself to admit that the shredded chicken inside was dry and that the chocolate brown mole on top was shockingly bland for a 20-ingredient sauce that should have been deep and complex.
"It's fine. I'm full," I said. But she didn't buy it, and insisted on taking it off the bill. "I want you to be happy, mi amor!"
After such caring treatment on visit one, I naturally worried that our second meal server hated us. Not only did he hastily whip our tableside guacamole into sloppy chunks with a spoon, he also neglected to inquire why my guest had not eaten much of his $24 mahimahi. We finally flagged him down too late in the meal for a replacement and noted that it had been so overcooked that it practically chewed back.
"Well, you ate most of it," he grumbled before taking it away, then softening into apologies and yet another bill adjustment.
It's a shame, since that fish, crusted in blue corn and crab over dual-toned sauces of sweet corn atole porridge and a pale green pumpkin-seed pipian, shows that there is a flicker of real ambition at the root of this chain out of Long Island (via an expansion partner in Tampa, Fla.) to take its cues from some authentic ideas. John Tunney, the surfer-turned-restaurant-chain-magnate who paired with one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse to open more Besitos in this region, says the "grandma recipes of Oaxaca" are the prime inspiration here.
His original locations in New York may well taste that way. And corporate chef Carlos Arellano, who grew up in Mexico City, clearly has a passion for this menu, waxing poetic on the subtle differences between his roasted and raw renditions of salsa verdes, the al pastor's guajillo-habanero marinade, his favorite cactus salad.
Unfortunately, I worry even the best of intentions inevitably become distorted by the corporate restaurant machine, which can blandify anything with a soul - like a mole - once it trickles down the chain into the hands of "culinary managers" who paint the menu by numbers to the least offensive flavor volume possible. They even have studio photos to shoot for, which some of the servers insist on displaying in iPad slide shows to their tables (in lieu of old-school word descriptions) as if their customers have never seen an actual taco.
Of course, I worry some of them haven't, though that's unlikely in this golden age of taco creativity. But I worry even more that some will be wowed enough by Besito's evocative decor - from the moody candle wall to the eucalyptus wood ceilings, wrought-iron fixtures, and blazing outdoor hearth - to think this is what an upscale Mexican restaurant should be.
With entrée prices hovering in the mid-$20s, it should deliver something more exciting than iron skillets oozing over with melted cheese and disappointing chorizo, or $25 skewers of boring grilled shrimp perched against a giant berm of chopped pink tomato salsa. (I worry now I shouldn't have let our server dissuade us from the camarones ajillo because they were "garlicky.")
The Philadelphia region has made far too much progress in its local Mexican scene over the last 15 years, from high-concept nuevo kitchens to humble taquerias, from South Philly to Kennett Square, to praise a high-profile step in the wrong direction. Just blocks away in Ardmore at a no-frills branch of El Limon, the cooking is superior at a fraction of the price.
I worry Besito's kitchen staff actually doesn't know how to make a taco. How else to explain so many toppings piled over those mini-tortilla rounds, right up to the very edge, so that half our carne asada (actually very tasty even if the meat wasn't hot) and half our fish (pale, underfried, and fishy) in the taco tumbled onto the plate when picked up.
I worry something happened to the garnish of crunchy tortilla strips that were supposed to come with our tortilla soup but never made it. I worry that the tacos al pastor might actually have been great had they not sat around in the kitchen until the strips of pork turned tepid, dry, and chewy.
I worry that all these worries have begun to cloud some of the reasonably decent things I had at Besito. The tamale de elote was fluffy and deliciously earthy sweet, made daily from fresh ground corn. The goat cheese and mushroom empanadas were full of contrasting flavors and crispy-creamy textures. The filete de res was also surprisingly good, considering the morsels of chipotle-sauced filet mignon were buried beneath a mountain of cactus salad, molten Chihuahua cheese, and plantains. The seafood tortilla lasagna called budin de mariscos was also an unexpected delight, despite its heavily cheesed richness. The seafood was bountiful and the creamy green poblano sauce was irresistibly good, even if it arrived with a heat-lamp skin puckering across its surface. (I worried about that.)
I was also impressed that my first server, Julia, had such a convincing accent for a nonnative Spanish speaker when she called me her amor - considering everyone else greeted us with such gringo awkwardness ("¡Ohhh-law aww-me-goes!") it was like nails scratching across a Spanish class chalkboard.
And at least there was a good Mexican chocolate pudding to compensate for the pasty, undersoaked tres leches cake, and a flan that would have been so much better without chocolate cake on the bottom.
I'm sure there's a doll just to fix the lukewarm coffee that I worry my server microwaved to reheat. But when the final-final parting gift appeared - a package of already cold and chewy churros whose grease was soaking through the bag - I began to really worry: Ardmore's Besito is going to need more than a few dolls to get this right.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews 26 North BYOB in Old City. firstname.lastname@example.org
BESITO (zero bells out of four)
105 Coulter Ave., Ardmore, 19003, 484-417-6825; besitomexican.com
This dressed-up Mexican chain from New York (via Tampa, Fla.) has landed on the Main Line at Suburban Square with a blazing outdoor hearth, a votive-candle wall, and a polished décor that reflects the upscale prices. Unfortunately, while the food has roots in authentic ideas, the execution is sloppy, the flavors are muted, and the servers, who range greatly in service skills and painfully gringo Spanish accents, often resort to iPad slide shows to sell the menu as if diners have never seen a taco.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Tableside guacamole; carne asada tacos; tamale de elotes y camarones; budin de mariscos; pescado con pipian y atole (when not overcooked); filete de res al chipotle; Mexican chocolate mousse.
DRINKS There's a wide assortment of margarita variations and tequila-themed cocktails, but none was especially tasty or well mixed beyond the Margaritaville standard. The tiny beer selection is weak and commercial - especially considering Ardmore's beer culture. Best to stick with a snifter of something from the extensive tequila collection, including favorites like Casa Noble, El Tesoro, and Porfidio (as well as Ilegal mescal).
WEEKEND NOISE A lively 84 decibels, but good table spacing and soft surfaces keep conversation possible. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, until 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.; Sunday, 9 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $16.95-$27.95.
All major cards.
Free parking lot.