Restaurant Review: Esperanto

Posted by Tegan O'Neill

Esperanto has the vibe of a mall food court eatery that was picked up in the middle of the night (probably around 2 a.m.) and then plopped amid the row of bars lining Caroline Street. What you get out of your experience at Esperanto is all about the expectations you have going in. If you don't expect the atmosphere to woo you, you won't be at all put-off by the harsh lighting and the anything-but-cozy seating area. If you treat the locale as what it is - a whole in the wall - it will not disappoint; it might actually please.

The service is fast - that's one thing in Esperanto's favor. A good portion of the menu is already prepared and sits underneath hot lights at the register waiting for hungry patrons to stumble in to the storefront. Be forewarned that the food here necessitates a beverage. Chowing down at Esperanto sort of makes you feel like you've been deposited on a desert island. Luckily, pretty much every soda under the sun is available. If you have a hankering for something fruity, the MASH ripe mango and blood orange will quench your thirst. Packaged in an adorable squat bottle, it is a carbonated fruit drink that dances on the orange soda end of the spectrum with a sparkle of mango.

Esperanto also gets points for its eclectic menu. What other place has the nerve to lump food from Greece, Mexico, Thailand, the Middle East, and the garden on its menu? Plus, they have pizza and a slew of house specialities that, apparently, have no place on the map. At least, the street food of all of these countries (or areas of the world or of the yard) is represented, if not represented well.

Esperanto's falafel, for instance, is not the best fried concoction ever to grace the earth. Yes, falafel is usually deep fried, but it should never be fried so much that a scuba unit is needed to retrieve it. The fried matter encrusting the chickpea and veggie patty had the mouth feel of a rough cut gem. Strike two against the falafel: there was enough grease still on the patties that "grease" should have been included in the blurb about the menu item. Thank goodness for the soft pocket of pita enveloping the falafel; the pita cushioned the falafel's fall in more way than one. Nice too was the cucumber cool as can be.

The pinkish cubes of diced tomato were an unwelcome reminder of the fact that wintertime produce is not spectacular and although their inclusion was certainly well-meant, unfortunately, when it comes to food, it isn't only the thought that counts. The only function the hummus performed well was to serve as a filler. It slacked on its duty to add pep to the sandwich. The tahini sauce served on the side was too meek to contribute any extra flavor, although it did add another textural layer to the experience of eating the sandwich this one silky, smooth, and wet.

Very similar to the falafel is the gyro but instead of greasy, forgotten in the frier falafel, there was cafeteria style meat stuffed inside a pita. Don't order it. If you do, you will not be inspired to dream about food consumed between exploring various ancient Grecian remains under sunny blue sky. Rather, the grilled strips of lamb and beef "seasoned with a distinctive blend of Greek herbs and spices" will bring you back to the days of eating the hot lunch option at school and memories of sitting on hard benches without backs, next to people you don't really like but are stuck eating lunch with every single day nevertheless. I think the meat was supposed to be aromatic but the spices end up creating an off taste that was also too salty.

Both of these sandwiches (which are both fairly hulking, by the way) come with a pile of tortilla chips - a good thing since Esperanto has a gold mine of salsas that are worth sampling. Best was a simple medley comprised mostly of chopped tomato and onion. It had a little bit of a bite to it and an unmistakable air of freshness.

Speaking of mexican fare, Esperanto has a nice take on the chimichanga. It's not your typical chimichanga since the the tortilla shell is baked not fried, thus making it a lighter, less artery clogging snack. The flavors of the lil' food package are not too heavy either. More than anything, the BBQ beef filling the chimichanga is sweet in a dainty sort of way. And the chipotle-spiced potatoes are as light as Cirrus clouds. These wispy elements combine to produce a solidly pleasant food stuff that is not at all obstructed by the outer wrapping of dough that is so thin it can hardly be tasted.

There is a difference between foods that have a pleasingly mild taste (the chimichanga) and foods that have no taste at all (the pizza). Esperanto is known for its pizza; it is also known for catering to a late night, inebriated clientele. Hence, the former known fact makes sense. It is the kind of pizza that, since it doesn't taste outright bad, can be ingested in large quantities and, since it doesn't taste that spectacularly good, merits no cause for slowing down and appreciating it. The tomato sauce is slathered so sparingly you'd think it was a prized possession that they didn't want to part with (it isn't that great for this to be true). Further disappointing is that the cheese lends scant flavor to the slab of underlying dough that is blander and flatter than the state of Nebraska.

The twice baked potato proved to be a much improved selection. Once you get past the congealed top layer (which most likely - and understandably - formed once it sat under the warming lights for a few minutes) the potato that has been mashed and then returned to its skin was actually quite wonderful. Made with sour cream and butter, it was rich and bursting with cheesy savor. I was reminded of eating Cheese-It crackers but in a more mellow form. It's the best way yet to get that irresistible Cheese-It flavor without any of the pain of having spiky cracker crumbs scraping your gums. It just kept getting better: eating the skin was the best part of all. The natural, earthy quality of the potato's skin counterbalanced the inorganic merger of butter, potato, and sour cream.

The best thing about Esperanto is definitely the doughboy. This legendary comestible combines dough, chicken, and cheese in a way that has never been done before and for only $3.50, you can buy it in all its glory. Soft, chewy pizza dough is wrapped around a mixture of diced chicken, sour cream, chives, and cheeses of the cheddar and Colby varieties which oozes like lava from its casing when bitten into. While usually consumed while intoxicated, I can assure you that the doughboy is still intensely gratifying while sober. Its seductiveness lies in its ability to satisfy that basic craving for rich, salty, creamy food and, oh, does it do that job well. 

To read more of Tegan O'Neill's outings visit her blog.

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