Some new restaurants — and often it's the simplest and most straightforward types — call for an oddly philosophical exploration into the very nature of the dining scene that seems well beyond the scope of what's on the plate, what it costs and how it's served. My recent visit to Urban Cantina, a simple neo-Mex joint in downtown Tampa, kicked me into that sort of navel-gazing reverie.
Like most restaurants, Urban Cantina has problems. The hefty chairs are out of place in a decor that strives for sleek, dark and modern. The food is decidedly pedestrian, Tex- and Baja-Mex standards stripped down to the basics and presented with little fuss or excitement. The restaurant's ranchero chicken is dry enough to have come from a frozen dinner and the "shrimp cocktail" consists of tiny shellfish swimming in a cloyingly sweet tomato and citrus soup.
And, like most restaurants, Urban Cantina has high points. The appetizer tacos — topped with seasoned meat, shredded cheese and hunks of iceberg lettuce — are built on a surprisingly toasty and flavorful corn tortilla. That foundation works even better in entree tacos that forego the lettuce for cilantro and onions. Tender hunks of pork and rich beans are paired with a bright burst of chile in Urban Cantina's burrito, a seriously filling and satisfying plate of food for $10.
Years ago, an editor told me to stop writing about the inside baseball aspects of being a food critic. He was right. Whining about eating free food doesn't play well with people who actually pay their hard-earned money for a nice meal. Truth is, most of us — and I'm including most foodies — rarely pay a lot of attention to the meals we eat at restaurants unless they hit the extremes of pleasure or disappointment.
Laura Reiley, my counterpart over at the St. Pete Times, wouldn't mention a place like Urban Cantina in a review. She'd give it a taste and pass, looking for more exciting fare or more egregious failure elsewhere. That's nice, but it kind of misses the point that places like this present — and let's be honest, most restaurants are like Urban Cantina.
Most restaurants don't thrive because of great cuisine, they thrive because of other factors: location, niche, style, whatever. People return again and again because they have that one dish they like, or because it's next to their office, or because of a vague craving for a type of food. It's all a matter of checking off boxes on a chart of conveniences that usually results in a vaguely satisfying, wholly forgettable meal.
Those meals fulfill a need without ever registering in the sections of our brains that process art, or novelty, or pleasure. At best, the sugar, fat and calories trigger satiety and contentment. That's why the lowest-common-denominator food at chain restaurants is so popular. We've conditioned ourselves to accept food as a simple formula: convenience + bland + fat and sugar = meal.
And that's why new spots like Urban Cantina are always such a disappointment, beyond even the rote analysis that a food critic like me applies to every restaurant I enter. So many places pick a formula and strive desperately to emulate the chain dining version of that experience, fully participating in the gradual process of dumbing down our concept of what food is all about.
It's not all their fault, to be sure. Every time we grab a bag of fast food we're making the decision to eat McDonald's or Checkers, not a hamburger and fries. We don't go out for steaks, we go to the Outback. We run for the border, or get a bucket of the Colonel. We're not eating food, we're eating brands.
And in the process we create places like Urban Cantina, a little restaurant that just wants to make some money serving the kind of food and experience that people seem to desire.
The real reason this hits so close to my home — and also why Reiley stays away from places like this — is that a serious criticism of this restaurant isn't going to do much to either direct people to, or keep people away, from Urban Cantina. The latest high-end modern American restaurant, or luxe steakhouse, or coffee shop with clever food? Maybe I can have an impact. But Urban Cantina's success, like the success of most restaurants around the Bay area, relies on checking off the boxes of the unconscious eater, not on creating an artistic show, innovative cuisine or clever style.