No fuss and plenty of fun
Some first impressions last for years, and I’m happy to report that we’ve finally overcome them to appreciate Tortilla Flats on its own terms. On a recent Friday night, it was living up to its reputation as a feel-good neighborhood hang-out, with a mixed-age East Side crowd who were eating, drinking, and catching up. We convinced our goddaughter Tarra, who lives in the neighborhood, to join us there and assess the menu of Mexican, Cajun, and Southwestern food.
Tortilla Flats | 355 Hope St, Providence | Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30 am-11 pm; Sun, 1-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.751.6777
Located in a former fire station, which had once been a barn and stable, this restaurant has maintained the original floors and much of a barn’s rustic feel. Booths, tables, and room dividers are made from wooden planks. Décor runs to beer posters — the menu informs us that Mexico is the second-largest beer producer in the world — and Latin American artifacts: colorful carvings and masks on the walls, and a group of Days of the Dead skeletons sitting above the front door.
The servers at the Flats are patient with questions and indecisive menu-readers. The kitchen is brisk, a bit overly so, since our entrées arrived before we’d finished our appetizers. But no real complaint; we just continued to munch on everything.
We started off with “traditional nachos” and guacamole ($6.95). Orders for these nachos are taken by the half or full dozen, and the large chips are baked with refried beans, cheese, jalapenos, and then topped with lettuce and the requested guacamole.
We also chose a “chili con queso,” which none of us realized was going to be a cheesey/black bean dip with chips (although this is clearly stated in the menu). One thing that’s not quite as described is the “mild” adjective for the chili peppers. There may have been some mild poblanos in the dip, but there were so many jalapeno slices on top, it was hard to escape them.
Tarra and Bill traded ideas about their main dishes until she settled on the “incredible burrito” ($11.95) and he on the shrimp and sausage fajitas ($16.95). I landed on the chile rellenos ($10.95). A note at the bottom of the entrée choices states: “Veggie lovers — Let it be known that almost anything on the menu can have fresh vegetables substituted for meats.” Indeed, in addition to the stuffed poblano in my dish, stuffed eggplant could be had with beef, chicken, or refried beans inside.
Tarra could barely finish half of her huge burrito, which included ground beef and beans, topped by cheese, sour cream, and olives, and was accompanied by rice. The dedicated med student took the other half home for a late-night snack.
Bill did accordingly with his fajitas, carefully arranging the fixings atop the shrimp or sausage slices. He thought he might need an extra tortilla, but they were quite big, and he ended up using halves or quarters to wrap up the filling.
My chile rellenos were stuffed with Colby and jack cheese, dipped into a batter and lightly fried before being topped with enchilada sauce. The problem was that the batter absorbed too much of the sauce before it was served, and there was no pleasing crunch left on the chiles, as I’ve experienced elsewhere.
Despite our own over-stuffed feelings, we perused the desserts, which are usually fried ice cream or “churros,” a cinnamon-dusted Mexican honeycomb pastry topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. A special that night was a cornbread shortcake, and with the waitress’s enthusiasm for their particular whipped cream (not Cool Whip, but not real whipped cream, she explained), we decided to share the shortcake.
This was not a success, even though we ate quite a bit of it for the strawberry flavor. The idea of strawberries and cornbread is a nice innovation, but when there is only a strawberry sauce (without even frozen strawberries), and when the aforementioned “whipped cream” is so inedible (in the opinion of these three diners), the dish shouldn’t be offered at all.
But again, Tortilla Flats is what it is: plenty of semi-Tex-Mex dishes, several New Orleans-styled listings, including blacked pan-fried catfish and Cajun chicken Alfredo; plus, burgers, pulled pork, BBQ ribs, and steak strips. Not to mention 35 different tequilas, many cervezas, five margaritas (even available in a 60-ounce pitcher), and a house sangria.
In keeping with its Steinbeck-inspired name, Tortilla Flats is just right for kicking back on a weekend and relaxing with friends: no fussy food, plenty of beer, and maybe a discussion of the photographic reproductions of pencil drawings of Steinbeck and “Doc” Ricketts, from Cannery Row, which are intended to set the tone for the restaurant.
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