By Richard Foss, Cuisine Writer
As much as you may dislike fast food places, there’s no denying that what they promise, they deliver. A McDonald’s burger tastes just as mediocre in Los Angeles as it does in Oshkosh, Wis., or in New York City. That’s why chain restaurants became popular in the first place — because travelers in the 1950s preferred predictability to the erratically executed diner food typical of roadside cafes. The cookie-cutter burger joints and coffee shops that came to dominate the highways served the same thing every time, and they did it fast, but they were missing local specialties, as well as that elusive thing called soul.
That’s in stark contrast to modern ideas about restaurants, which prize creativity and individuality to the point of eccentricity. If a Somalian-German fusion place opens up, it will send ripples of interest through the foodie community. That community might also be expected to investigate a place that serves Mexican and Peruvian cuisine with a large vegan menu. If that sounds like something I made up, then you might consider the menu at Conrad’s in San Pedro.
Conrad’s opened in March in the former Beach City Grill, and that formerly shabby place has been cleaned up considerably. It’s now neat and bright, the walls adorned with a few tropical landscapes, and each table has a little pot with a tiny succulent. Sit down and you’ll be offered a regular and a vegan menu, and though there’s some overlap the omnivores should take a good look at both. On our first visit we had plenty of time to do so, since our server presented them to us and then disappeared for almost 20 minutes. This might have been reasonable if the place had been full, but there were only two other tables occupied. When he finally returned, we ordered soft drinks and starters from the vegan menu: street corn, squash empanadas, potato taquitos and guacamole.
The street corn arrived after some delay, the empanadas shortly behind them, taquitos much later, and the guacamole not at all. As we were to discover throughout the meal, the kitchen doesn’t have their timing synchronized yet so that everything can be served at once. Nevertheless, the items we did get were excellent. The squash empanadas in fried corn shells were delicious and the zucchini mix inside had a nice balance of spice with natural vegetable flavor. The two small turnovers were topped with avocado sauce and grated vegan cheese, which had a mild flavor and crumbly texture that isn’t far from the traditional cotija.
That vegan cheese was also on the street corn, which was easy to share because it was delivered off the cob. The chile-lime seasoning and chipotle aioli gave it plenty of zip but even the spice wimp at the table liked the way the corn flavor wasn’t overwhelmed. The potato taquitos hit the mark too, the tortillas crisp and the filling very light and smooth with hints of pasilla chile.
The entrées arrived in the same haphazard fashion, but over the course of the 10 minutes from the first to the last we all had a chance to try each one. While our starters had all been solid, these were hit and miss. The carnitas that topped a pair of tostadas and stuffed a burrito had an unusually heavy smoky flavor, which is something steakhouses sometimes prize but isn’t really common in carnitas. This competed with the flavor of the meat and of any other seasonings that were there, but was OK in the tostadas where there were other elements to balance it. In the burrito this was the dominant flavor, and we all quickly tired of it. Everything else about those entrees was fine, and the mild ranchero sauce on the burrito had a nice gentle kick, so we might have liked either item with a different protein.
The steak saltado, a Peruvian stir-fry of meat with french fries and vegetables, was the biggest disappointment of the meal. It usually includes about equal portions of potatoes, bell pepper, onions, tomatoes and meat, but we received mainly french fries with some meat and onion but very little tomato or peppers. It was strange that a place that caters to vegans and has a deft touch with vegetables would short the veggies that give this dish its texture and flavor, but it did. The nice garlic sauce that the fries were tossed in helped, but not enough to make this dish a winner.
On the other hand, the chicken mole I ordered was something I’d have again any time. Our server gave me a choice of Oaxacan mole or Poblano mole and I asked for it to have half of each, which he said was possible. He then brought it with only Poblano mole, with the explanation that they were out of Oaxacan. Regardless, it was really excellent mole sauce, dark and rich with chocolate and chile and other spices. They nailed this, and if the rest of the entrées had been of this caliber we would have been delighted.
We decided to finish with churros, and as an apology for the slow service our server made it a double order. He didn’t need to bother to do this, because they arrived with a crisp exterior but underdone and doughy in the middle, so we abandoned them after nibbling the crunchy exterior. He recognized the problem and removed them from our bill.
Conrad’s seems to be on its firmest ground when making the vegan items, because all of those hit the spot, but the customer experience needs improvement. If they can then this cafe could be a destination for omnivores and vegans alike. I’m not asking for chain restaurant levels of speed and reliability because you don’t get that with handmade food, but we expected better than they managed on our visit.
Conrad’s is at 376 W. 6th St., San Pedro.
Details: 424-264-5452; conradsmexicangrill.com