The joy of food

By MARK NIXON


Restaurants, like people, have personalities. In 2016, two restaurants stood out because they exude a cheery playfulness, both in what they serve and who is doing the serving. The French call it joie de vivre, the joy of living.

The taco dinner at Pablo’s in Old Town tops Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence’s list of Greater Lansing’s best tacos.
Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence/City Pulse

Bridge Street Social in DeWitt is new to the local restaurant scene. Soup Spoon Cafe in Lansing is an established culinary icon. Both are like giddy teenagers gobsmacked by their first love — but in this case, their romance is rooted in the joy of cooking.

They make the ordinary extraordinary, as in Bridge Street’s panko-encrusted smoked potato or Soup Spoon’s Dijon-enhanced pork schnitzel.

The prevailing happy-to-be-here attitude among waitstaff in both places seems part of the DNA. Either that, or they have all graduated with honors from acting school.

In September, I wrote that Bridge Street’s decor included a picture frame, empty except for smaller, also empty frames, “as if they are awaiting an artist.” Curiously, framed windows hang over the bar area of Soup Spoon — windows awaiting our gaze and inviting thoughts of what lies beyond.

Am I reading far too much into the decor? Perhaps. All I know is that the food, the service and the vibe in both places add up to something upbeat in these downbeat times. Joie de vivre.


The tao of tacos

By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE

Last summer, my husband and I set out on a quest to find the best tacos in Lansing. These are the extremely unscientific results of our delicious research.

My criteria for a perfect taco are few but crucial. I need a corn tortilla. Flour tortillas are for burritos and enchiladas only, and on this point I am strict. My preferred toppings are minimal, but they must include chopped cilantro, onion and possibly crumbled queso. Shredded cheese and iceberg lettuce do not belong on a taco. I want to taste the meat — whether it be chicken, beef, pork or chorizo — and I definitely don’t want to taste wimpy lettuce and waxy cheese.

Pablo’s in Old Town (311 E. Grand River Ave.) has the best Mexican food in town. We knew that Pablo’s was going to be a strong contender, and we started visiting the restaurant early in our mission. This was both a blessing, because we got to eat dozens of delicious tacos, and a curse, because then we didn’t want to go anywhere else. The taco dinner setup at Pablo’s is ideal, because you can choose different meats for your three tacos. My absolute winner at Pablo’s is the chorizo taco — slightly spicy sausage in a double-layer corn tortilla topped with chopped onion and cilantro. Rice and beans on the side. Heaven is a place on earth.

My close second is the El Oasis taco truck, which parks at 2501 E. Michigan Ave., just east of Foster Street. We have loved their food so hard and for so long that they were one of three food trucks we hired to cater our April wedding reception. (The other two, in case you were wondering, were Good Truckin’ Food and Detroit Frankie’s Wood Fired Brick Oven Pizza.) These tacos also feature a double layer of corn tortillas, which is so important when the tortillas are thin and threaten to break under the weight of their delicious filling. El Oasis also has a wide selection of meat, and my favorites are chorizo and al pastor (pork.) The pork is seared just a bit until crispy, and the moist and juicy meat is perfectly complemented with the bite of the onion and chorizo.

In a surprise twist, a BBQ joint in Reo Town boasts the third-best tacos in my taco bracket. Saddleback BBQ (1147 S. Washington Ave.) has quickly become a family favorite, catering everything from our housewarming party to my sister’s wedding to my school board campaign fundraiser. Everything that we eat at Saddleback is a flavor punch in the face, and when they started serving burnt ends on Fridays, we had to have them. Burnt ends are chunks of Saddleback’s already luscious, smoky brisket that are cut off and re-smoked to deepen the flavor even further. During a nightly chat about what we would eat the next day (isn’t that what all married people do?), my husband and I came up with the idea to go to Saddleback for lunch and ask our girl Rachel to taco the burnt ends. She enthusiastically accommodated us, placing them in tortillas and throwing some queso and cilantro on top. She politely and awkwardly chuckled when we reacted to the deliciousness of the tacos by asking her to become our new best friend.

As far as honorable mentions, Cancun in Okemos serves a perfectly acceptable taco, as does Famous Taco on Saginaw Highway. Rest easy Lansingites and know that whatever quadrant you live in, fabulous tacos are just a short drive away.