Trago seems comfortable. Too bad it’s off limits.
Reviewing the process of reviews during peak bad news
Editor’s note: Liz’s article covers how hard it is to review a restaurant that you won’t be able to eat at during stay-at-home orders. Trago is now doing carry-out Wednesday to Saturday. For more up to date details, please check their Facebook page.
One of the drawbacks to writing for a monthly magazine is the lead time. I’m writing this review on March 13, the day the mayor declared a State of Emergency to halt the spread of COVID-19, the day I went on the radio with a panel of food writers to talk about the risks of dining out.
It’s also deadline day. I have a restaurant review to file for Trago, a cozy restaurant in Liberty that serves tapas—tapas! Food designed for sharing in big groups of intimate people. Food that practically demands we all reach from the same plates and trail the tines of our used forks through the same sauces.
This review won’t be published until April. You’re reading this a month in my future. Tell me: Do we feel comfortable eating tapas now? Do we feel comfortable eating out at all?
Do you still want to hear about a plate of puffy tacos ($10.50) with crackling, air-pocketed shells? Do you care that the flossy pork inside them was slow-roasted for eight hours in banana leaves until it was soft enough to gum? Have you ever noticed that salty cotija cheese can add resonance to a rich dish like the metallic clang of a heavy bell?
Did you notice me shoehorning in a review paragraph just now? Are the limitations of this form beginning to grate?
I find it hard to justify my job on a good day, let alone during a global pandemic. I can’t pay a restaurant worker’s bills with words. The best I can do is pay attention and hope that means something. Because for now, at least, there’s still a tight-knit team of servers and line cooks and family members driving to one of Liberty’s endless strip malls every day, clocking in at a date-night restaurant sandwiched between a laser hair removal clinic and a Smoothie King. I hope someone’s there for the show.
Owner Kandi Kerns opened Trago Bar & Tapas in 2016, citing her grandmother’s cooking as inspiration. Although “tapas” is in the name, the cuisine isn’t strictly Spanish. The menu has a few cursory nods to Spain—asparagus swaddled in Serrano ham, fruity housemade sangrias ($7 at happy hour for a king-sized goblet)—but most dishes skew Central American. Or, as our server put it on one visit, “Guatemalan-Cuban fusion.”
Here are some other things I learned from our server: Trago is family-owned and operated. Trago has a scratch kitchen and relies on local purveyors as often as possible. Trago offers a three percent cash discount. Trago could really use our help.
On my first visit, our server, Kari, rattled off these things in a speech that felt no less impassioned for having been rehearsed. She was welcoming, assertive, competent, confident. Servers here have got to be a little evangelical; word-of-mouth is how they survive. (“We can’t really afford to advertise much,” Kari told me).
I put our table’s tapas in her hands. She steered us toward the steak skewer ($12.60), which was not a skewer but instead seven bite-sized pieces of steak served on a plate with a chopped pepper garnish and a trio of sauces—mole, chimichurri, salsa roja. The salsa roja was a bit marinara-y, but the chimichurri was herby and bright and the pudding-y mole had a slow-build heat and garlicky finish.
A dish of frijoles negros y tostones ($8.40) arrived around the same time—five plantain discs surrounding a creamy moat of black bean puree. The plantains needed a little salt, but the texture was spot on: crisp edges and soft middles.
“I’m serving a lot of strawberry pineapple margs tonight,” Kari said. I invited her to serve one to me, too. It was giant and sweet and tasted like college. I liked it fine, but I liked the less syrup-y drinks more. Trago makes a fresh and fragrant mojito ($8) and a brightly fizzy roja chelada ($8) with tomato juice, Modelo, and lime. You should order them if you’re able. You should imagine them if you’re not.
Look, I’m trying here. I’m hoping food writing is still useful as escapism. I’m hoping it might be enough for me to describe crisp and airy pork rinds ($7.35) piled high in a white-paper cone, dusted with sweet paprika and served so warm that they’re still popping audibly under your fingers. You can dunk them in one of the accompanying sauces—a tangy salsa verde, that flat salsa roja—but they’re best munched mindlessly on their own.
I’m writing an essay: “Chicharrones as Meditative Practice.” They fill your head with nothing but the music of their own crunch.
Maybe you’d prefer to hear about a plate of patatas fritas—thin slices of fried potatoes dredged again in sweet paprika and powdered in cotija cheese. The chips were salty, smoky, funky, alternatingly tender, and crisp. They were good alone or swiped through a white cup of white sauce that was billed as an aioli (well, actually…) but had the consistency and pungency of ranch.
I still want to tell you that the Cuban sandwich ($14.70) needed a sharper mustard and a crunchier pickle, or that the risotto balls ($12.60) had bland interiors beneath the tantalizing drizzle of cilantro sauce. I want to snark about the dining room’s sunny walls and dizzying mix of pan-Hispanic art. Behold a Picasso print, a coffee bag, a bullfighter decal, a Mayan mask. Behold, also, the scads of any-place decorations from the back wall of a TJ Maxx: tiered votive holders, carafes filled with wine corks, a hammered metal bowl of plastic fruit.
In early March, a large glittery snowman the height of a 10-year-old still loomed above my booth. It was creepy, and I loved it.
Perhaps because of Trago’s neighbors—chain restaurants with massive menus—most dishes here are customizable. You can order your tacos in butter lettuce wraps instead of tortillas, if you like. An entire section of the menu is color-coded for gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian diners; another is reserved for those following the keto diet. There’s even a section of “skinny cocktails” that clock in under 150 calories.
I almost overlooked that section. “Skinny” ranks at the bottom of my list of Offputting Culinary Adjectives, next to “sinful” and “toothsome.” And sure, there’s nothing fashionable about the Dulce ($8)—white rum muddled with mint and mixed berries and topped off with lime juice and Sprite Zero—but the drink tasted tart and fresh and far less sweet than I expected. “Skinny” or no, it’s one of the best alcoholic options here.
I don’t think Trago is trying to be fashionable or cutting-edge. It’s trying to be comforting. You feel at times that you’re at a retro dinner party at a good friend’s home. How else to account for a plate of chubby bacon-wrapped dates ($8.40), molten and sweet with a tangy balsamic drizzle? Or a cigar box of school-lunch churros ($5), served fresh from the fryer and filled with a vaguely boozy caramel cream? The churros come with two sauces (one chocolate, one caramel, both runny), but dipping them is gilding a lily that’s already been fried and doused in cinnamon sugar. They’re sweet in all of the word’s meanings, and they might be exactly what you need right now.
I’m still trying to justify this review. The role of a critic isn’t to be a cheerleader for the industry. The role of a critic is to help diners make informed decisions about where to spend their limited dollars when they dine out. The role of a critic is to point out what’s working—and isn’t—in the food scene. And right now, the role of a critic might be to point out that that food scene still exists.
Last month’s review of Trago would have been positive. I like this goofy place with its float-trip drinks and its weird décor and its everything-to-everyone menu. I like this rough-edged island in a big-box suburban stream. But this month’s review is less exhortation than self-conscious shrug: Come here if you can. Share if you’re able. You’re reading this in the future—you know better than me.
Back here in March, I’m still hopeful. Someday soon, we’ll be able to sit around the table with each other again, fencing with our forks for the last plantain. I’ll let you have a sip of my michelada. I’ll laugh at something you said and touch my face.
Trago Bar & Tapas
9261 NE 83rd Terrace
Tuesday–Thursday 4 PM–9 PM
Saturday–Sunday 11 AM–11 PM
Tacos and tortas: $10–12
Best bet: Sip a Dulce and snack on some chicharrones. Share: the bacon-wrapped dates and black beans with plantains. Hoard: the puffy tacos.