Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Restaurant 38: Bonita (Infinite Feast XIX)

LOCATION: 338 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
DATE: June 11, 2005
FOOD: Mexican Corn; Lime Soup; Chips and Pico de Gallo; Fried Tilapia Burrito
BEVERAGE: Half a pitcher of White Wine Margarita
PRICE: $30.00

For some reason, paying $25 for a Mexican entrée seems egregious to me. I mean how expensive can a tortilla really be? But many of the better known Manhattan Mexican restaurants like Rosa Mexicano and Mama Mexico, charge such rates. And while restaurants like Mercadito and Itzocan offer innovative re-imaginings on Mexican classics, to find authentic, affordable cuisine from our southern neighbor, it’s the outer boroughs that present the best possibilities. Thus, Danny and I arrived at Bonita in Williamsburg, just blocks from the L, for the latest installment of Infinite Feast, this time discussing Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.

While neither of us felt the need to rave about Fuentes’ novel, Bonita’s food brought mutual exaltations. With a layout reminiscent of the retro bistro style of Schiller’s Liquor Bar, Bonita was hip without being faddy, full without being crowded. The open-air kitchen allows diners to see their meals through all stages of preparation and adds to the neighborhood feel of Bonita. Our waiter doted on us, frequently asking (and re-asking) us if we liked our food in a manner showing he genuinely cared. His attention was one of Bonita’s many charms and spoke of sincerity rather than the type of uncertainty common to 14-year old girls inspecting their reflections, left to wonder if their mother’s assessment of “pretty” is accurate or if it’s a lie to help the teenager forget the colossal sized zits playing havoc on her cheeks.

However, the joys of puberty need no further elaboration – Bonita’s outstanding Mexican dishes do. We began with the ultimate of Mexican ubiquity – chips and salsa. The pico de gallo was milder than typical jalapeno salsas, but still had enough bite to satisfy the calling for caliente. But it was my first appetizer, the Mexican corn, which really convinced me Bonita wasn’t messing around. Bringing a street vendor staple indoors, this grilled corn was lathered in red chili spices. But what made it exceptional was the crumbled blend of soft white cheeses (I believe mozzarella and jack) added as a final coat once the corn had cooked. The cheese melted over the kernels to form a veneer ripe with flavor – it will be hard to go back to American buttered corn cobs in the future. The cheese provided a gooey contrast to the blackened corn and a milky sheen that mingled wonderfully with the corn’s sweetness.

The lime soup, if not equally as tantalizing as the corn, was very nearly so. In my experience, this soup has been called tortilla soup, but as Bonita’s version of Mexican chicken soup was superior to my previous tastes, the Wiliamsburg restaurant can call it whatever they like. Crisp tortilla strips floated in a chicken broth seasoned with delicious and relatively neutral Mexican spices and the accent of lime juice. Stewed tomatoes added an acidic-sugar, but the succulent chunks of roast chicken really made the soup. Bonita roasts whole chicken and I can only imagine how sensational these birds must be after tasting the guacamole like pliancy of the chicken in the soup.

To wash down all these savory supernovas, Danny and I split a pitcher of Bonita’s white wine margarita. While the title of margarita was just a fancy name for what tasted like white lime sangria, this near juice like drink worked well to alleviate the oppressiveness of June humidity and made up for Bonita’s lack of a liquor license. The drink, while enjoyable, needed to be a tad stronger, though at $18 for two and half glasses a piece, I won’t complain too vociferously.

As we debated over whether Artemio’s death really needed to go on for 300 densely constructed pages of stream of consciousness (couldn’t he have died on say page 170?), our entrees arrived. Though my fried tilapia, rice and vegetable filled burrito was humungous, upon finishing it, I literally wanted to beg for more. The fish itself was incredible – taking an overly flaky and dry white fish like tilapia and turning it into the meaty, juicy and entirely non-greasy golden brown tendrils of seafood perfection as Bonita did, requires the type of magician "Arrested Development"’s Gob continuously tries and but can quite manage, to be. Bonita also packed the burrito with fish, instead of using rice as filler. Thus, the rice and creamy sour cream sauce filling the burrito provided satisfying enhancements to the fish, but still remained as background flavors. Reflecting at the end of the meal, it was impossible for me to decide whether the burrito or the corn had been the better dish. I only knew I couldn’t have done without either.

Bonita may refer to an anonymous beautiful woman, but perhaps it is more deserving as an adjective for the restaurant’s food. Every part of Bonita functioned flawlessly and the touch of giving Chiclet-like Canel’s Gum with the bill only proved this point. For what I might have paid for a single entrée at a Manhattan Mexican tourist trap, I got an entire authentic Mexican meal at Bonita. The L train may operate as sporadically as a soap-opera surgeon, but since it takes me to Bedford Avenue and Bonita, I’ll be willing to wait as long as it takes the next time a Mexican craving hits me as hard as one of Fuentes’ sentences.

RATING: 8.5/10

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