Controlled Substance

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The East Coast Grill’s thin is in.

by Bruce Morgan
The Boston Phoenix, Section Two, February 10, 1987

There are towns in the American West with so little substance that you have the sense of not seeing them even as you see them. The East Coast Grill is like that in some ways; its thinness is its charm. A bright box of a room set amid the plebeian shops of Inman Square, Cambridge, this restaurant/bar is best known for barbecue and youthful flair. But the joint manages a nice trick of subverted scale, too: the old Texas-in-the-hat number. I think it’s worth visiting to see how neatly a hint of smoke, a high ceiling, and a squiggle of neon can evoke the kind of landscape the Lone Ranger never tired of roaming through.

Step right in, step right in. Eight stools at the bar, which is a nice long slab of marble. It’s bright as a phone booth in here (remember phone booths?), beneath lights that resemble Japanese umbrellas. Wall colors are muted and pale, like the hues of German cars in suburban driveways. The floor is ancient, intricate, black-and-white patterned tile. Wispy smoke wafts up from an open grill at the far end of the room: an overhead vent inhales it all. Small tables decorated with fresh flowers are packed into the place, and most are occupied. A female country singer I don’t recognize is keening in the upper register, her voice an accent in among the talk that bounces up form the tables.

Part of the interest in quaffing $3 beers at the East Coast Grill is the lesson in comparative economics that arrives with your frosted glass. For instance: how many Anchor Steams (at $2.75 apiece) would it take to pay for Joe Blow’s shoes to be repaired at the cobbler’s shop two doors down? Or to finance a haircut and a shave for this same gentleman in the barbershop next door? One? Two? One man’s idleness is another’s steel shank. The questions tend to pose themselves if you happen to be sitting at the bar and looking toward the street. It’s all plate glass that way, marked off with fanciful swirls of colored neon strung in a simple loop such as you might make to get a ballpoint going, and the natives shuffle by in the bluish light now and then; it can’t be helped. A bag lady catches me gazing in her direction, and I quickly glance away, into the mirror behind the bar. What’s wrong with that guy – hunched over his amber brew and looking abashed?

Glancing down toward the smoke-and-haze end of the bar, I notice a man and a woman sipping bright blue margaritas. This is their second or third round and they’re having fun; it looks like they’re drinking a swimming pool cup by cup. They lean together and laugh. A couple of pink swizzle sticks – little animal, camels, perhaps, are lying across the grain of the marble. I look back toward the street: the bag lady is gone. The guy in the mirror still has some kind of problem.

This place offers barbeque in three different regional styles – North Carolina, Missouri, and Texas. But its feel is all lifted from the Lone Star state. The room is not twangy and sociable enough to be an oupost of North Caroline; Missouri as a source would be require more barnyard cries and banging of furniture. No, Texas is the one. The suggestion of a dry, hard life enacted against the limitless horizon line is the dominant ether here. And this wider prospect seems to affect the people coming through the door. They sniff a breeziness at the threshold and relax accordingly – it’s like hitching up your pants and drawling after you’ve been watching Gunsmoke for a while. That nasal cowboy sound of Willie Nelson coming over the speakers doesn’t hurt any, either; Willie’s voice could curl a wagon track.

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Sometimes it seems a shame that we can’t take the vast open spaces of the West and the dense tenement life of the East and shuffle them together for a better hand. Then we could have a separate triple-decker for each ox canyon in Utah. And tumbleweed rolling between the houses in Somerville – heck, the houses would be so far apart that you could barely yell from one sagging back porch to the next. The general compulsiveness and moodiness of the East would dissipate among the purple sage; and the West would have something besides sand, crickets and a scouring wind to keep its poor, bare towns apart. Just one man’s idea for improving the national scene.

Once you’ve spent any time breathing that Western atmosphere, life back East seems thwarted, cramped and small. The land is so huge that it dissolves the walls; life becomes more transparent. It was in a club in Austin a few years ago when the band began to play, “Waltz Across Texas,” and the dancers had the high-stepping, airy look of people who might ust take the title to heart and continue out the door and down the road. This would never happen in Boston. The East Coast Grill is an odd name for a place whose tone and menu both originate elsewhere; the South and the West, to be precise.

This is a first-class spot for a cleansing mental ramble, out among the yuccas and the gnarled mesquite. It’s no good at all for eavesdropping, since the conversation starts low, clattering at table height, and roars upward like sprayed water or gunfire. So I’m pleased when a couple snakes in and grabs the two stools next to me. They are – what? Lovers? Roommates? Fellow Fulbright scholars? Mother and son? The less known the better. “Oh, I got lipstick all over your face,” the woman laughs, dabbing at the younger man with a napkin. She lives in the suburbs, he’s in med school; they are … friends. Turns out she expects scads of backyard tulips to bloom in the spring. Turns out they both order plates of barbecue to nibble at the bar.

The woman explains to her companion that she used to have a boyfriend who lived just a few blocks from here and that they used to frequent the place a lot. They had met in a very romantic way: he saw her on the street and left a scribbled note on the windshield of her car. It took her a whole year to realize that he was totally self-centered, and after that … the romance just faded away. She grows silent after telling this last part. Willie Nelson is singing a vinegary “Amazing Grace,” and I steal a glance in the woman’s direction, expecting to find her eyes moist with tears. But she is bent over her plate, shoveling in the Texas-style brisket. Hmm, dogies, that’s some eatin’…

There’s a nice lack of fussiness in this joint that would be fun to encounter more often. There’s a lack of detail and a lack of anguish, too. (Freud never wore cowboy boots.) Pardner, the East Coast could learn a lot from the East Coast Grill.

Duck Inn

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I have lived right around the corner from the Duck Inn since I moved to Bridgeport. I was already a fan of Chef Kevin from way back years ago when I went to the Four Seasons restaurant to try his fine dining dog (it was amazing.) Later, I got a chance to work at a restaurant next to his in River North, and was always bringing the good vibes whether just saying hello or coming in for a big to-go order.

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Proof that I am one of the lazy ones: it took me almost half a year to walk through the hardscrabble to see the boathouse under construction at Park 571 on Eleanor Street (who am I kidding?! I drove.) That same day Raven Beauty and I actually did walk over from my place on Archer Avenue. I had read about the Duck Inn connection to Chef’s family, and I was wicked excited to have my first meal there.

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All that being said, nothing prepared me for how awesome The Duck Inn actually is. This is a badass team operating with passion across the board. The space is beautiful, the bar room up front was The Gem Bar, and where we had dinner in back was the old operator’s residence. Terraced patio space, with tables on a couple different levels, tempted in the leafy backyard, but it was too hot that day.

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I asked our server the kind of dumbass question about the chefs’ counter seats that made me embarressed for having asked it as soon as the words left my lips. “Do uhhhh people who are newbies to restaurant industry get whiplash sitting that close to the kitchen?” Our server took my unfunny and sweatily awkward question and flipped it into a bow-wrapped short story version of how the restaurant came to be. We were in good hands.

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The food was hit out of the park and I am procrastinating because I don’t know where to begin. The new hotdog is so much better than the fine dining dog: it’s like Kevin Hickey supercharged a Superdawg by pimping out each and every ingredient. All the touches, from the fresh baked poppyseed bun to the chutney of tomato and mustard, superb, and the meaty juicy chef-crafted dog itself makes even our vaunted Vienna Beef taste like a weenie.

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For an entree the Portuguese style clams and chourico was beyond – beurre blanc richness with citrus and acid for balance. I remember strawberries like 3 ways for dessert, and I am trying not to think about the chocolate peanut butter beignet. And I would be remiss to point out that on a super hot dog day of summah, Chef was there saying hello to guests in the dining room before heading back to work with the team in the kitchen.

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I’m going to quote yelp on this one (a first?) and say woohah as good as it gets!

AGÜITA DE MELON

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Here is my new cumbia mix, “AGÜITA DE MELON,” enjoy the cumbias:

1) MICHAEL JACKSON – BLACK OR WHITE – FOLKLORE by maquinadexitos
2) Travolta tiene lo que quieren las wachas by Jose Candioti
3) Bob Esponja – Te quiero puta! (Rammstein) by CalamardoTentaCul0s
4) Marilyn Manson-The Beautiful People(Polka Version) by Andy Rehfeldt
5) Some nights Version cumbia – FUN. (Tato Dj) by Tato Arata
6) Aerodinamic Daft Punk (Electrocumbia Villera remix) by Acorde On

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7) HADDAWAY – WHAT IS LOVE Version Cumbia by Ivan Contreras
8) SNAP YOUR FINGERS DURANGENSE! by djcg22
9) The Offspring – Come Out and Play (Version Para Los Pibes) by Oscar Coronel
10) Tropikal Forever – Kuñao (The Outfield – Your Love cover) by es cotes
11) Soundgarden-Black Hole Sun(Mexican Ska Version) by Andy Rehfeldt
12) Matando la cumbia – Los froPesionales (rage against the guatona tetona) by racarras
13) iron maiden – The Flight of icarus CUMBIA by El Ruido De Las Calles
14) Josué y Las Reinas – No One Knows by Oscar Coronel

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15) LOS PLEBEYOS – El Pipiripau by GABRIEL BARRERA ZEVADA
16) FITO OLIVARES – AGÜITA DE MELON by superjoeregio
17) Los Pedernales – La Del Moño Colorado by Regiodecorazon70
18) Eminem- lose your self (banda remix) by irvin avelar
19) El Doctorado – Grupo Tumbau by Ymtz1983
20) TAKE MY BREATH AWAY BERLIN SIN ENSAYO by CUMBIA Y CUARTETO

Mona Lisa Smile

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The beer program for the Bayless empire is based here, at Cruz Blanca, much like PQM does the meats for all of One-Off restaurants. This place is seriously growing on me. I love the casual vibes of the walk-up bars and find your own seating and the space is beautiful – the fun and fast paced ground floor with the taco kitchen, and the breezy second floor overlooking Randolph St. When I was there, the playlist was cumbia versions of American hits, people were in the zone.

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The styles of beers are unique and under-appreciated, and mostly low ABV, which means you may even be able to remember the interesting and obscure gems of beer knowledge doled out by the bartenders. CB’s Rubia, with honey made in Chicago, is the perfect session beer, a French style I had never heard of called bier de garde. Smoke Alley, the smoked wheat beer, and agua fresca, magically and refreshingly combine for what they call a housemade radler.

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For a restaurant, the food options are limited, but for a brewery the food options are way beyond the standard offerings. All 5 taco platters are outstanding, locally and humanely raised meat grilled over live fire and served with heirloom corn tortillas (I asked for a couple more and they gave me extra for no charge.) I am becoming a total cucumber radish salad head. When I was there the daily changing agua fresca was yellow watermelon and lemon, with the smoke wheat beer, Cruz Blanca starting to crush it!

Gburski’s Latin Brunch

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From the East Coast Grill circa 2008. Gburski’s Latin brunch was ahead of its time, man. Grilled tropical fruit. Ribs in spicy sauce. Half a dozen clams.

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Tortilla rellena, in roasted tomato salsa, stuffed with smoked duck and melted jack cheese. Cuban Reuben. Breakfast platter “in the style of the Yucatan.”

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Beyond endless coffee, there was Brian shucking an oyster into your self made cocktail from the Bloody Mary bar, the Eggman, Verna’s Donuts, John making liquados dangerously, guest appearances by dinner servers Dave, Tina, Brenda, and when Christa, Shokoh, Jess and the brunch captain teamed up to form the best team ever, there were a few brunches that Gburski and friends made happen that were real magic.

Agua Del Yum

5 rabanitos chicago pilsen alfonso sotelo fish tacos agua fresca arthur mullen mexican food  3rdarmI took a couple personal days for a staycation- the summer in Chicago goes fast, and if you don’t slow down and try to enjoy it, it’s gone.  For my mental health recovery after helping open two… maybe three restaurants? I’ve lost count.
5 rabanitos chicago pilsen alfonso sotelo fish tacos agua fresca arthur mullen mexican food  3rdarm

I must be all turned around. The first thing I did with my time off was finish the redesign of the 5 Rabanitos menu, social media and website. While not “relaxing”, the new food, layout and colors could probably be called, “refreshing.”

La Cumbia Illuminati

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Saturday July 16 – Our biggest night and we felt it… almost 300 covers! The kitchen stood strong and there were no long tickets, a testament to how badass our culinary team is. The FOH made it through with teamwork and communication, and we learned a lot of good things about service and how to make it better the next time we seat 4 tables in the PDR.

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The crowd was not as high energy, maybe because of Pitchfork music festival pulling away our rock n’ rollers. Great teamwork on both floors: as we started to cut towards the end of the night, everyone supported one another with closing duties.

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Mood Scale: A table of 5 guests were very inquisitive about the sourcing of our food. They were armed with many questions, to the point of almost being critical. We got to talk to them about the corn masa from Masienda, well as the tomatoes from Mighty Vine. When I was bringing these guests a couple extra tortillas to finish their taco platters, I also brought ramekin of pico de gallo. It was one thing to answer their questions but when they added some of those ripe tomatoes in our salsa to their last tacos, the flavor alone lifted their mood scale to a 9 or 10!

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Shout out: Thank you to Matt for all your table touches, and Nosheen who came over to help me reel in the awnings. Now that I am closing both restaurants, I see and appreciate our 900 team more than eva.

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Tom Skilling says… tropical heat creeping closer.

Woo Hah Marienkäfer

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July 13 – Good vibes in Cruz Blanca on this mid-summer night’s dinner service! We filled up by 6PM both on patio and in DR. Thunderstorms were on and off, and Manny was on top of drying the patio throughout. Towards the end of our dinner rush, a double rainbow appeared (check out our photo @cruzblancachi on instagram.)

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Mood Scale: Tonight we used the doppler radar to track the most intense band of thunderstorms. Two gentlemen had been enjoying the patio for an hour already, and just received their tacos, when we saw the imminent threat of thunderstorm. Manny and I moved these guests and another party inside to safety ahead of the deluge. These guys thanked us later and said we had made them feel well taken care of.

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Shoutout: Roxanna made us these super sharp black, white and red Cruz Blanca stickers, that look awesome on the new buzzers.

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Tom Skilling says… Thursday brings sun, clouds, wind, rain.

Móntame En La Tormenta

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Sunday, July 10 – Excellent Sunday with the team executing on all levels – this is how we want to end every week. Good job by Leslie, Maria and the HC seating many walk-in’s – and also knowing when we hit the limit on number of walk-in guests.

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Moment of Zen: Tonight we sealed the polished stone Onyx bar, waxed the hot line and pastry line, and wood-oiled the tables. The trifecta, mission accomplished.

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Tom Skilling says… resurging heat and humidity may trigger strong storms…

Smells Like Cumbia Spirit

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Big Tuesday to start back up after July 4th – business may have been dampened being the day after the holiday. Shoutout to Maria, Sarah and Lanie for doing such a great job with seating, meaning we never needed the PDR because it was so smooth.

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Mood Scale: Chad had 2 guests at bar seats 512 ask why all the habaneros they see in the USA are orange, but when they visit Mexico they will often see green habaneros. Chad had hazarded an (incorrect) guess that the orange habaneros are more fully ripened, and then got me involved for a second opinion. Last year on the staff trip to the Yucatan, I learned from David Sterling that one of the reasons we see variations such as really large avocados, or green habaneros, is that tens of thousands of years ago the climate was very different, meaning a much higher sea level, separating areas such as the Yucatan from mainland Mexico, and leading to variations of species specific to these tropical regions. These species are not as popular in the USA because they specifically adapted to the tropics: they do not grow well here. It was a lot of fun to be able to recall some of David Sterling’s wisdom and share it with these guests!

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Shout out: To our new barback Sam, who was quietly supporting both bars, making service run noticeably smoother, great job!

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