Still, the risk is great. A recent New York Times article on the subject reported that "two of every three new restaurants, delis and food shops close within three years of opening, according to federal government statistics, the same failure rate for small businesses in general."
Why overstate such stark odds? As a restaurant critic, I'll admit that it provides an ego boost, giving you a part — however minuscule — in a churning, do-or-die industry. But I don't think the perception that restaurateurs have it especially tough is limited to critics, and I know from reading my counterparts here and elsewhere that not all critics subscribe to this belief.
Maybe the perception stems from the emotional investment we make when we dine at a new restaurant. Food is personal — made, served and sometimes eaten with our hands — and in my experience, at least, we are more apt to respond to that first meal as we would to a first date. We talk our friends' ears off, good or bad: "You have to try this new place. It's amazing!" or "I'll never get those two hours of my life back." And when a place we love closes, the failure strikes a part of us that other businesses can't reach.
I suppose, by the nature of my job, I think about these things more than most people do, but over the past couple of weeks, especially, I've been thinking about the long odds restaurants face. More specifically, I've been considering the chance a restaurateur takes when he or she chooses a location off the beaten path. That restaurateur, in addition to all the other risks, must convince diners to venture where they normally wouldn't.
I visited two such restaurants recently. The first didn't seem prepared for the possibility that someone would go out of his way to eat there. One employee — actually, the cook — wasn't sure whether the restaurant was open for lunch. At lunchtime. After a friend and I had been seated and given menus. It didn't matter, in the end, because very few items on the menu were available.
I decided to suspend my review and return in a few months. That is a luxury I have. The average diner probably wouldn't give this place another chance. When your new business already faces a challenge, you probably shouldn't shoot yourself in the foot.
Instead, I visited Tower Tacos, which opened this June on Cherokee Street a few blocks east of South Grand Boulevard. Regular readers are well aware that a Mexican restaurant on Cherokee is right in my wheelhouse, but Tower Tacos is situated a few blocks west of what has come to be known as the street's Mexican neighborhood. It occupies one end of a strip of storefronts that includes the Tin Ceiling Theater and the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts.
The restaurant is small but inviting, with ample light and high ceilings. The interior seats roughly 30, and there is also a small patio area. Its name notwithstanding, Tower Tacos is more a full-fledged Mexican restaurant than a taqueria. Tacos and tortas are available, but the menu includes numerous entrées, most of which follow the standard meat/rice/refried beans arrangement.
On my first visit, I sampled the chori pollo, a generous serving of three boneless, skinless chicken-breast cutlets topped with chunks of pineapple, chorizo and queso fresco, served with your choice of flour or corn tortillas. The chicken is marinated with the pineapple, so the meat is especially tender and, as far as boneless, skinless chicken goes, flavorful. But the sharply flavored chorizo, spicy without being very hot, is what carries this dish.
The other entrée I tried brought ten small shrimp sautéed in a buttery garlic sauce, served again with flour or corn tortillas as well as sliced pickled jalapeños. Though there weren't many shrimp on the plate, each was cooked perfectly, opaque but very tender, and carried a pleasant garlic snap. Chopped garlic, browned until the texture turned chewy, added a mellow undertone.
The selection of tacos and tortas is somewhat limited relative to the taquerias down the street. Here you can choose from only three different meats from each, as opposed to La Vallesana, say, or Taqueria el Bronco, where in addition to Tower Tacos' chicken, carne asada and chorizo tacos, you might find tongue, tripe and other less-familiar meats.
That said, Tower Tacos' versions of its namesake dish are very good. The carne asada is properly seasoned and manages that tricky balance of being a touch chewy without being at all tough. You choose either corn or flour tortillas (both soft) and whether you want chopped onion and cilantro or pico de gallo as your garnish.
The tortas at Tower Tacos struck me an outsize example of an already large dish: The crusty bolillo roll was big enough to hold two sandwiches' worth of meat. I ordered a torta milanesa, which is made with steak pounded very thin, breaded and fried. The toppings were lettuce, tomato, avocado and mayo, and the whole shebang barely held together when I lifted it with my hands. Take my word: This is a knife-and-fork sandwich. On the side are French fries, probably up-from-frozen but exceptionally crisp, almost as if they were battered.
There is a lengthy à la carte selection of enchiladas, burritos and the like for those who like to build their own meal. A friend ordered a single chile relleno, and we were both impressed with what arrived: The lightly battered poblano pepper had a decent kick, and the cheese oozed with intent, but the highlight was the delicious, smoky red sauce that topped the dish.
One drawback to Tower Tacos: Like most taquerias in the area, it doesn't have a liquor license. Also, the restaurant keeps taqueria hours, which means you shouldn't plan on an especially late dinner, though an early lunch or, on the weekend, a breakfast with menudo is possible.
I would be remiss not to mention the tomatillo salsa, one of two that accompanies your free chips. (The other, red-chile salsa is forgettable, as is the restaurant's guacamole.) It has the tartness of tomatillos cut with a gradual, unmistakable heat. I loved it and added it to several of my dishes.
Is it odd to end a review praising the free salsa? Maybe. But these little touches are often what bring me back to a place again and again long after the review is filed and I'm just another paying customer doing my part to support a slightly out-of-the-way local business.