Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drinks and Bites at Garaje

Update Review, February 2017

Oh, Garaje.  One of my favorite places in SF these days, which is funny, as it is a casual place, kinda a burger joint / taqueria, neither of which you'd expect to be at the top of my list.  But, Garaje clearly isn't really a Mexican place, nor is it a burger joint, or anything in-between, as you've read about in my previous reviews, from 2014 and 2016.  I'll skip all general descriptions this time around, since you can start there.

This visit was my first visit at lunch time.  I went with a group of co-workers when we wanted to have a lunch offsite, a rare occurrence for us.  We arrived at 12:20pm, and nearly every seat was taken, which didn't bode well for our large group of 8, given that most tables seat only 4.  Luckily, by the time we got through the line (which was long, but moved quickly), and went in search of seating, the one large communal table in the main area cleared out, and we swooped in.

Our group was all given separate numbers for food, even though we ordered (and paid, still cash only) as a group.  I think this was to simplifyy things for the kitchen, and ensure food was brought out as it was ready.  It did create a rather awkward setup though, as our food arrived at totally different times.  I was the first to order, yet the last to receive my food, a good 15 minutes after the first person in the group got theirs, which did not make me happy.

However, all my grumpiness over the agonizing wait for my food vanished the moment I took a bite.  Damn, this place is good.

Last time I visited, I went with Ojan and split the Crispy Crab Crack and the Surfer Leo Zapato (so I could finally try a zapato, but still get the crab cake that I loved so much on my first visit!).  It worked great, although was kinda too much food, but it made me also fall in love with the zapatos.  This time, I was met with indecision again.  The crispy crab crack really is hard to pass up.  But I did enjoy my zapato too, and wanted to try another one.  And I still had my eyes on the fish & chips, since I liked the beer battered fried fish in the Surfer Leo Zapato.   And, totally out of character, I was drawn in by the Jose Wong salad (I'd been really craving salads, not that this was a healthy one).  I would have also been happy with a pulled pork sandwich, or even the beer battered cauliflower "El Mermaid" taco.  I wanted it all.

In the end, I managed to basically get everything I wanted, by finding a co-worker to share with, and opting for the Maverick Zapato, aka, the one with the crispy crab crack inside a zapato, plus fries and a mini salad on the side.  I missed out on the fish, but, I still got 3 of the 4 items I really wanted, so, success.  It was also the perfect amount of food for two people, and I'd definitely go this route again, although, of course, there are still so many other things to try ...
Maverick Zapato. $14.  Thick Cut Skin On Fries. $3.
"Crispy Crab Crack, Fries, Avocado, Jack, Chipotle Mayo."

So ... this was a gut buster.  No doubt.  The crab crack alone is a massive deep fried crab cake.  It really is a meal in itself (there is a reason it is served just with slaw normally, and that is an entree not an appetizer.)  And then consider that zapatos have french fries, tons of cheese, and way more mayo than you'd ever put on yourself stuffed inside, in addition to whatever protein you pick.  Zapatos alone are huge, and more than a meal, even if you opt for a simple grilled chicken filling (several of my companions could not finish their zapatos, and they didn't order any sides!).  So, what do you get when you stuff a crab crack into a zapato?  Yeah, ooph.

Making the call to split this was absolutely the right move.   I loved every bite of it, but I can't imagine having more.  A half was plenty, a substantial portion, and left me absolutely stuffed.

So, how was it?  AMAZING.  Crispy grilled flour tortilla on the outside, just so much better than a standard burrito.  I normally don't finish the entire tortilla when I get a burrito, but this I easily finished.  It was not just a wrapper, it was an essential part of the tastiness.

Inside was the crispy crab cake.  I'll admit, it did kinda get lost inside the zapato.  The fried exterior provided crispy bites that I loved, and I could taste, and see, plenty of crab, but, I don't think I was able to appreciate the crab cake in quite the same way as when separate.

The fries worked much better here than in the Surfer Leo, since the mushy texture wasn't as strange with the mushier crab cake.  Or maybe I just knew what to expect this time?

And then of course there was cheese, tons and tons of very gooey, perfectly melted, delicious cheese.  And the chipotle mayo, which added more creaminess.  The cheese and mayo coated the fries, they coated the crab cake, they coated the tortilla.  There was tons, making this even more decadent (because, fried crab cake and french fries stuffed into a burrito isn't decadent enough already, right?), but, as much as I wanted to think "eww, too much mayo and cheese", it was just too delicious to care.

There was no moderation here, no way you could possibly convince yourself this was a reasonable choice of something to eat, but, sometimes, it just doesn't matter.  Its just too good.

That doesn't mean however that I'd get it again.  The crab cake really was better on its own, and I'd go back to that next time.  Delicious inside, yes, but you don't get to quite appreciate it enough with all the other elements.  That said, if I'm feeling the desire for something cheesy and comforting, I'd certainly get another zapato, just, probably back to the Surfer Leo.  The $14 price makes it one of the most expensive zapatos (most are $7-9), but, given the crab cake inside, it seems pretty reasonable.

We also ordered a side of fries.  They were entirely unremarkable.  Just fries.  Hot enough, fresh enough, but uninteresting.  I don't think Garaje makes just a cheese smothered version (they do make a version with carne asada or fried pork, guac, cheese, and salsa, which I had before), but I think cheesy fries would be pretty good.  I'd certainly skip these fries again in the future.  (Side note: we were bought a little bowl with packets of ketchup in it with the fries, why don't they have a ketchup dispenser or at least bottles of ketchup for dining in?)
Little Jose Wong.  $5.
"Cabbage, lettuce, cilantro, scallions, carrots, red peppers, jalapenos, crispy tortilla strips, peanuts, chile hoisen dressing."

As I mentioned, I was also craving a salad strangely, and was quite tempted by the Jose Wong salad on the menu, particularly after reading rave reviews.

You can get the Jose Wong as an entree salad for $10, and add toppings like grilled or fried chicken, carnitas, seared ahi, plancha grilled shrimp, etc, basically, anything you could get in a taco can be turned into a salad topping.  But we opted for a side salad, just to try it, along with our other goodies.

It came served in an adorable little Chinese takeout container, a bit hard to eat out of, but, cute.

This was a great salad.  The veggies were all crisp and fresh, and formed a great base.  I loved the crispy tortilla strip shreds on top, and the peanuts for additional crunch factor.  The dressing was spicy, sweet, and very tasty.  I'd gladly get this again, and would certainly choose it over the fries, but, half a zapato really was enough food for me, so it wasn't necessary.

If I ever visited Garaje and wanted a lighter option, I could certainly imagine ordering the full size salad and not feeling like I was getting "just a salad", and being quite satisfied with my meal.  I'm not sure how I'd ever pass up the other options, but, it could happen.  Really, ideally, I wonder if they could top the salad with fried fish?  It isn't listed as an option, but I don't see why that wouldn't be possible.  Just one piece of fried fish and the salad seems like it would be a great portion size ... or the salad and half a crab cake?

Update Review, May 2016

A co-worker of mine needed to plan a casual dinner for a fairly large group, within easy walking distance of our office.  The problem is, he knew the group would be somewhere between 20-45 people, but he couldn't require RSVPs in advance.  This rules out ... well, pretty much anywhere.  Places that can handle groups of those sizes really want confirmed guest counts at least 48-72 hours in advance.

He was pretty stumped, and I think was about to fall back on somewhere like Buca de Beppo, when I suggested Garaje.  Since I had attended a private party there back in 2014, I knew the format would be a perfect fit: he could reserve the upper mezzanine to give the group dedicated space, and then just hand out wrist bands so the food and drink costs would go onto the group tab.  People could come and go, and move about as they pleased.  I took my finder's fee by way of getting to crash the party.

If you aren't familiar with Garaje, I suggest reading my original review, and then returning here, since I'll be skipping background and format information, and just focus this review on this visit.

The venue worked well, except for the fact that we all arrived, about 35 or so people, all at once, at 6pm, when the line was already long.  We quickly overwhelmed the downstairs space near the register and some members of the group were in line for about a half hour.  Once we ordered though, food came quickly and was much loved.

Everyone raved about their dishes, and the variety I saw was huge: plenty of burgers, tacos, and zapatos, plus a number of Crispy Crab Cracks (at my recommendation of course), and even a few random things like chicken fingers.

The beer drinkers were also quite happy with the selection, as were the non-alcohol drinkers (lots of Bundaberg beverages, not just root beer and ginger beer), but I was again a bit disappointed by my options for alcohol that weren't beer: only sangria or honey-wine.  I had the honey-wine, and it was fine, but still a little too much like beer for my real taste.
View from Above.
We were again in the upper mezzanine, overlooking the entire space.  Here you can see the standard booths for seating, the pass and kitchen on the left hand side, and the front register.  Yes, it was packed.

The kitchen was crazy fast and efficient though, and our food arrived quickly.  They somehow managed to find us each and bring us our food while it was still piping hot.
Crispy Crab Crack. $11.
"Beer battered fresh Maryland lump crab cake, spicy slaw, cilantro lime sauce".

In the two years since my previous visit to Garaje, the menu did not change in any way that I noticed.  So I was again completely torn by wanting the fish & chips, the crab cake, a burger, and to finally try a zapato.  Luckily, this time I had Ojan with me, so we could order two things and split.  One of those things obviously had to be the crab crack again.  I know I had it last time I was there, but, it was too good to not order again.

The dish changed slightly.  It cost $1 more.  The crab cake, while still large, was actually only about half the size as before.  The pile of slaw that it was served with grew substantially though.

Overall, I still liked it.  The crab cake was delivered hot and fresh.  It was crispy on the outside, moist and full of shredded crab on the inside.  I love mayo based slaw, and this was fresh and crisp, and the jalapeño in it again really kicked it up a notch.  I of course loved the creamy cilantro lime sauce, as I'm a sucker for mayo based sauces.  A chunk of crab cake, dunked in sauce, with a forkful of slaw made for a delightful bite.  Fried, crispy, creamy, fresh ... it had everything you could really want.  I'd still get this again, although, I'm more open to trying something else now.
Surfer Leo Zapato. $9.
"Batter fried sustainable tilapia, fries, avocado, jack, chipotle mayo."

For our second dish, I sorta wanted to finally try a burger, but Ojan went out for burgers the night before.  I sorta wanted to try the bbq pulled pork or the fish and chips or even the hot pastrami.  But ... I settled on a zapato, one of the signature items at Garaje.

A zapato is sorta like a burrito, just sans rice, that is also grilled and pressed  Ok, so maybe not really a burrito.  How about a flour tortilla panini?

Anyway.  Garaje has a slew of different zapatos, including some basic varieties with jack cheese, refried beans, salsa, avocado, and your choice of protein like carnitas, mojo chicken, or carne asada.  See, basically a burrito.  But, then they also have some far more interesting options, most of which involve adding fries inside as well.  These include the "Surfer Vero" with plancha grilled prawns, the "Maverick" with an entire deep fried crab cake inside, or the "Surfer Leo", which we opted for.

The "Surfer Leo" is basically a fish + chips version of a zapato.  So ... fish + chips meats a burrito.  Yup.  While it might sound a bit crazy, it turns out to be pretty amazing.

Like my crab cake, the zapato came hot and fresh.  The flour tortilla was crispy from the grill, and it was cut in half, easy to pick up and eat.  Regular burritos can be a bit cumbersome, but this really was simple to eat.  While I don't really like flour tortillas, I liked the crispy aspect of this far more than a standard burrito.  A definite improvement.

Inside was several pieces of fried tilapia, french fries, and tons of cheese.  Avocado would normally also be inside, but due to my allergy, we asked for it on the side, so Ojan could add it in as he pleased.

The fish was super crispy, flaky, and really good.  I instantly wished I had ordered fish and chips.

The fries were a bit strange inside.  At first I really didn't like them.  So I pushed them aside and ate the rest of the zapato.  And then ... I came back and finished the fries.  I think I just didn't like the soft, starchy texture of the fries alongside the crispy fish.  I'd leave them out next time.  We also ordered a side of fries, again, hot, fresh, crispy, good fries.  So the fries were certainly good, just, not what I wanted inside.

The Jack cheese was kinda awesome.  I'll be the first to say that Jack is a pretty boring cheese, and not one I'd ever pick, but, it was melted so perfectly here that I didn't care what kind of cheese it was.  There was a ton of it.  Perhaps too much really, but it made it into such perfectly gooey comfort food.

Oh, there was also a very generous amount of chipotle mayo, super creamy, coating everything inside.  You know me and mayo, so, I loved that too.

I was shocked by how good this was.  Guilty pleasure food for sure.  Fried fish and french fries with an unhealthy amount of cheese smothered in mayo?  Yup.  I liked it even more than my crab crack.

Next time, I'm tempted to just get the fish and chips, as boring as that sounds, as I did genuinely enjoy the fried fish.  Did I mention that the fish and chips comes with the same awesome slaw from the crab cake, plus the chipotle mayo from the zapato, plus lime mayo too?  It really does sound up my alley.  Although I'd gladly get this zapato again (just with the fries left out), or the crab cake ....  Or maybe, the crab cake zapato?

Ok, I know, fish & chips, with melted jack on the fries?  Guess it is time to go back already ...

Original Review, April 2014

The other night I attended a birthday party at Garaje, in SOMA.  I was excited because it opened a year ago, and I still hadn't been, even though I've been hearing really good things.

So first, let me attempt to define what Garaje is.  At some level, I feel they are suffering from an identity crisis, so it is really hard to define.  Garaje is a sports bar, a taqueria, a beer hall, and a burger joint.  All in one.  But somehow, it works.

I'll dive into each aspect one at a time.

First, the sports bar.  The decor is uh, retro garage, with plasma screens showing sporting events.  You order drinks (beer only) and food (taqueria-style) at registers at the back.  They are cash only, but have an ATM near the doorway.  Drinks are dispensed immediately, and you are given a number for your food, which will be delivered to your table.  The single line, for food and drinks, is a bit of an issue, as it seemed to crawl along, and it regularly took 20-30 minutes just to get through the line.

Speaking of lines, the same goes for the bathroom, a single unisex room.  Yes one bathroom for an entire bar.  That line was regularly 5-6 people deep.

But I'll stop being grumpy now.  The food was shockingly good, even though the menu was expansive, and a bit of a strange assortment.  They somehow crank the food out quickly, even though it is all done à la minute.  This was the most impressive part.  I was at a private party up in the mezzanine, so I could watch the kitchen from above, and it was clear that they had minimal mise en place.  The cooks prepared each and every dish to order.  Each piece of fish going into a fish taco was dredged and fried to order, the slaw wasn't dressed until right before it was added to a dish, each order of fries was individually fired.  And this is at a bar?  This is certainly not ordinary bar food.

Like I said, a bit of an identity crisis.  Yes, it was a bar, albeit only with beer.  So maybe it was a taqueria, but with fancy microbrews on tap?  And burgers that people actually seek out?  Confusing, yes.  Delicious, also yes.

The taqueria part of the menu features tacos, basic street tacos, or far fancier options, like seared ahi tuna or plancha grilled farmed tilapia.  Ok, so it is an upscale taqueria.  The signature item seems to be zapatos, basically burritos that are grilled in a panini press.  But then there are also burgers, and they most certainly aren't the cardboard variety.  Marin Sun Farms grass fed beef, Acme buns, decadent toppings.  The birthday girl claimed that this is her favorite burger in the city.  The burgers are clearly not just thrown on the menu as an afterthought.  So now, it is a bar, a taqueria, and a burger joint?

Then, there are also salads and a slew of other sandwiches (fried chicken, grilled chicken breast, grilled pastrami, pulled pork, seared ahi) all also served on Acme buns.  At this point, I don't know how to define Garaje.

So I won't.  What I can tell you is that the food is on point.  Quality ingredients are used, it is well executed, and the food is incredibly flavorful.  It isn't a fancy place, and your food will arrive in a plastic basket.  But sometimes, this it is exactly what you need.

I highly recommend, and I'll certainly be returning, as there are too many menu items that I wanted to try.
Besides the food, the other major focus is the beer program, with a slew of microbrews on tap, and a sign proclaiming "no crap on tap".  But as a non-beer drinker, I was limited to only one alcoholic choice: house made sangria.  No cider, wine, malt beverages, or hard liquor are available.

The beer drinkers seemed very happy.  Garaje also has an impressive collection of glassware, and it seemed as if almost every type of beer came in its own custom glass.  Also exciting for some our group were the size options, including liter sized steins.  Given the long lines to order drinks, the liter option does make some sense, as you don't need to return as often :)  But, then again, perhaps it also adds to the bathroom line issue!

The sangria was not quite what I expected, as it was almost frozen and a bit slushy.  Not too sweet, a bit fruity, the strongest flavor was certainly the underlying red wine.  Not bad, and I was happy to drink it, but I of course would have loved more options.

For non-alcoholic options, they had soft drinks, iced teas, and a nice selection from Bundaberg, including tasty ginger beer.
Carne Asada Fries.  $8.
One of my dining companions ordered a bunch of fries, chips, and salsa.

We started with a side of plain fries, and I appreciated that they were crispy, clearly cooked fresh to order, and delivered immediately, as they were not soggy or limp.  The fries were a slightly thick style so they were fluffy inside, seasoned with the right amount of salt.  Pretty decent fries.

Next, the famous carne asada fries, the same thing, but topped with carne asada, jack, guacamole, and roasted salsa.  I didn't love the carne asada itself, it seemed a bit dried out and tough, but it was flavorful.  The jack cheese was perfectly melted, although I sorta wanted more, as many fries were left without.  I'm allergic to avocado, so I couldn't really dig into these much, but I'm sure if I was able to eat the guacamole, I probably wouldn't have missed the cheese as much.  Like all of the dishes at Garaje, there was a generous scoop of the guac, which was even more impressive on the tacos, as it literally seemed like there was as much guac as any other filling.  They don't skimp on the premium ingredients!

You can also add an over-easy egg for $1, which some of my companions added to their burgers, but not the fries.

Finally, we had some of Nico's chips and fire roasted salsa, also with guac.  The salsa was fine, spicy enough, and the chips crispy, but I didn't feel compelled to go back for more of them in the same way that I did with the fries.

The price for the plain fries ($2) was very good, but the carne asada fries ($8) were a bit high compared to other prices, since you could get a carne asada taco for just $3.  I wouldn't order them again, but, I also wouldn't have ordered them in the first place, due to the guac and steak.  Fries are also available in a pulled pork version.

The chips and salsa were $3, plus another $3 for the guac.  $3 for chips and salsa seemed a bit high compared with other prices, or compared to the fact that many taquerias include them with a taco.
Crispy Crab Crack. $10.
I really struggled deciding what to order.  Partially because I'd already had dinner, since the party started a bit late for me, and I thought it was just going to be a taqueria, so didn't think I'd be into the food.  So I wasn't really hungry.  But the real problem?  I wanted everything!  The seared ahi sounded particularly appealing, available as a taco, on top a salad, or as a sandwich.  And who can resist a classic fried fish taco, made with beer battered tilapia? (For the healthy types, you could also have your sustainable tilapia plancha grilled instead.  Or, you could just go all out, and get a full on order of fish 'n chips, which I was really, really close to doing.)  I also was very tempted by the "Surfer Leo" zapato, basically fish and chips (yes, including the fries), plus all the standard zapato fixings, inside a grilled tortilla.  Yelpers all rave about the zapatos, and this one had my name all over it.

Luckily for me, the line provided me plenty of time to ponder, make a decision, change it, and go back to pondering some more.  Such indecision.  But everything changed the moment I saw the "secret menu" (ok, not so secret, as it was posted on a large chalkboard just like the regular menu, and also listed on the printed menus at the register.  But they pretend it is secret.)  Indecision vanished, as I saw "crispy crab crack".  Crab crack.  Crispy.  No, not a type-o.  Described as "battered fresh Maryland crab cake, spicy slaw, cilantro lime sauce".

I was sold.  Sure, seared ahi or fish and chips are good and all, but ... crab!  One of my favorite ingredients.  Of course, in the Bay Area, I am used to local Dungeness crab, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Maryland crab make an appearance on a menu in San Francisco.  I love my Dungeness, but for crab cakes, Maryland crab does work well.

This crab cake was a monster.  Not an appetizer, not a side dish.  Probably best for sharing.  But share I did not do.  In retrospect, I should have.  Several people saw me with it and asked what it was, clearly seeking an invitation to try some.  But I just told them it was awesome rather than offering a taste.  And remember how I wasn't hungry?  Yeah, that vanished when this arrived.

First, they weren't joking with the "crispy" part.  I did see crispy in the name, and battered in the description, but I wasn't quite expecting this.  The same beer batter that they use for the fish, used to coat a crab cake, and then ... deep fried.  Genius!  I've had many crab cakes in my day, but I certainly haven't had one beer battered and deep fried before.  It worked beautifully, insanely crisp outside, moist inside.  Sooo much crab meat.  Yes, it was all shredded and there was some filler, no lump meat, but it was delicious.  Just like the fries, each one was made to order, dredged and battered and dropped into the fryer, delivered to me piping hot.

Served on top a bed of spicy slaw, fresh and crisp, with full slices of jalapeño in it for some serious heat, lightly dressed.  They are not afraid of flavor or spice.  As I watched from above, I saw each and every order of slaw dressed to order, so it was never soggy.  I loved combining bites of the crab cake with the spicy slaw.

And finally, the cilantro lime sauce, which was basically super flavorful mayo.  At this point, I was all in.  Deep fried crab smothered in flavorful mayo?  Sure, bring it on.  I hesitate to admit this, but I used up my entire container long before consuming my entire crab cake.  I wanted even more.  It was the perfect creamy compliment to the crispy fried deliciousness and the spicy slaw.

A fabulous dish, and I'd most certainly order it again.  The crab cake is also available as a sandwich, with chipotle mayo, on an Acme bun.  Tempting, but I'd still probably go for this version again.  But ... I do still want to try a zapato.  Perhaps I'd find a buddy to split with, and have half of each.   Yes, that is the plan, next time ... 
Garaje Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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