The first time I dined at Gusto's, with Victoria, was the evening after she'd put the family cat in the clothes dryer. "The cat went in by hisself," Victoria disagreed, demurely. "Yeah," grimaced Victoria's grandmother Marci. "Luckily she couldn't figure out how to turn the thing on." Victoria is three, but still far from being over the Terrible Twos. Which is the reason I wanted her as a co-reviewer at this particular restaurant: Gusto's ads proclaim that it was voted "Number One Family Restaurant" by Zagat's readers. For the tougher New Times audience, a real trial was necessary. Victoria is a real trial.
She has also been, though, her whole short life, an enthusiastic and surprisingly sophisticated eater, always happy to scarf down jalapeño-hot Mexican dishes, German sauerkraut, Indian curries -- exotic stuff even for adults -- in considerable quantities. Naturally the minute she got inside Gusto's, she refused to take an interest in any food whatsoever. Well, except for some Sprite. Which our waitress brought in a huge Styrofoam cup that sent the kid into instant demonic possession. "I thought she might prefer it to a glass glass because she could move her drink around without breaking it," our waitress wailed, crushed, before rushing back to the bar for a huge breakable glass mug of Sprite. Which Victoria regarded with immense satisfaction ... before reaching for the Styrofoam cup. It was that kinda meal.
Fortunately two other family members were present to help taste-test Gusto's grub: Marci and Britney. And both have big appetites, which proved invaluable. Because Gusto's serves Big Food. Listening to our stomachs rather than our server, who assured us repeatedly that splitting a couple of starters and one main course would be ample for four, we ordered three full appetizer/entrée meals -- and were stuffed halfway through the starters, which Gusto's calls "sharables" for good reason.
Chicken quesadilla, for instance, was enough food to feed Mexico City. Bearing about as much resemblance to usual flat quesadillas as Pamela Anderson does to Calista Flockhart, the chicken/cheese-stuffed flour tortilla also bore little resemblance to authentic Mexican food in spicing, but had a pleasant back-yard barbecue smokiness offset by the natural sweetness of caramelized onions and roasted corn.
Spinach artichoke cheese dip tasted sufficiently fresh (overcooked spinach makes this dish sooo gross), with enough artichoke pieces to make the otherwise smooth texture interesting, and enough stringy cheese to make dragging dip-laden tortilla chips across the table good, though not clean, fun.
Crispy chicken wings come mild, medium, or hot, and in four varieties: traditional, teriyaki, raspberry, and honey garlic cilantro -- the latter our choice. Gusto's customers evidently have a stupendous sweet tooth. The wings were drenched in honey; no other flavoring was evident. "I love cilantro," mourned Britney. "And I really love garlic." Once past the sugar coating, the wings themselves were terrific: crunchy outside, moist and meaty inside.
Best "sharable" was a side of onion rings -- so good no one wanted to share. Normally I prefer old-fashioned floured rings to battered, because normally the batter is so thick it's hard to even find the onion inside, but Gusto's batter was elegantly thin, crisp rather than beer-leavened spongy, and flavorful enough that only salt and a sprinkling of lemon was necessary seasoning, though an included side of ranch dressing went well.
Of our main courses combo fajitas (steak and chicken) were most successful. These do-it-yourself tortilla-wrapped packages of sizzling onions, peppers, and meat are seldom something I order because while the vegetables are usually tasty, the meat is almost always cardboard-dry. Both Gusto's steak slices and chicken pieces were unbelievably juicy and tender.
Unfortunately salt levels were appallingly high. But salsa, sour cream, lettuce, and tomatoes helped dilute the sodium. (As did beer. Gusto's had nowhere near the 40 drafts touted in its ads, but the approximately dozen-and-a-half offerings included numerous imports, like Whitbread's, with enough guts to stand up to severe saltiness.) Because the same ad had boasted of "prime steaks," not something one expects in a semi-chain spot where steaks are priced $11.99 to $16.99, we tried a top-of-the-line 20-ounce porterhouse. The steak came bleu as ordered, with a smoky taste and a texture that was very tender -- too tender, actually, for my taste. What's normally most interesting about this cut of beef is the textural contrast between the soft tenderloin on one side of its bone and the chewier top loin strip on the other, but this steak's mushy strip-side fibers were separated, as though they'd been tenderized with a mallet.
Crabcakes were a disappointment, large but full of floury filler and coated with a crust that seemed both burnt and strangely sweet. But another fish offering, a crunchy fried grouper sandwich -- topped with lettuce, tomato, and a red onion slice on a big sourdough bun -- was terrific, fresh, and accompanied by excellent tartar sauce.
Lighter eaters might prefer to sub salads for entrées, particularly since the salads I tried on a second visit were substantial, and dressings were much better than average. Honey mustard was very sweet, but was balanced by a strong mustard bite. Caesar was thick, with appealing anchovy saltiness. And slightly sweet shallot-enriched house Zinfandel, which I ordered subbed for the standard bleu cheese dressing on a cobb salad (cheese dressing is overkill on a salad packed with cheese), was a perfect counterpoint to the dish's bacon, avocado, and eggs.
Desserts were very big and very sweet, with a lighter-than-usual cheesecake the most adult choice. But Britney went for the death-by-chocolate brownie supreme, hands-down favorite for family members too young to worry about instant death-by-cholesterol.
Incidentally, along with its family-restaurant citation, Gusto's was also voted "Number One Sports Bar" by some other publication (and yup, there are indeed TV sets tuned -- soundlessly, thank you -- to athletic events, everywhere you look), meaning a very different crowd. So those seeking a Brady Bunch rather than Osbournes family-type experience might wish to avoid Saturday nights, if the sleazy advertising postcards by Gusto's cash register are accurate; the female entertainers pictured are dressed far more sparsely than Gusto's salads. But Britney went into raptures at ads for Thursday's weekly karaoke night. "Whoa! Power 96 radio is here! I have to come back -- with my friends!"
Meaning not with family? Oh, well. There was no charge for Victoria's sodas or chocolate ice cream dessert, nor for the hours of psychiatric care no doubt required by our server. And the leftovers we four took home from our three dinners made grocery shopping unnecessary for days. That's family friendly.
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