…of Ithaca’s southwestern options
Moe’s (4 Stars)
Moe’s Southwest Grill is perhaps one of the few places on the planet where “cheese” and “queso” are two distinct entities. The franchise’s Ithaca location is on Route 13. Until recently, it was the only national southwestern franchise in Ithaca, and though its status as “only” secured it top-ranking on a technicality, its food lived up to the hype. Admittedly, it’s a nuisance to have to translate “burrito without guacamole” into “Joey Bag of Donuts,” and their salsa and chips may not qualify as works of culinary art, but they do have queso. The melted-cheese concoction is one of the dozen or so offered burrito fillings available, along with numerous others.
Though delicious and all natural, the food shouldn’t necessarily be equated with “healthy.” Fun fact: One side of their all-natural, hormone-free queso comes in at 150 calories and 25 percent of the average person’s daily recommended dose of sodium. Most prefer the queso as dip to accompany their chips, but I happen to think it’s best mixed into a chicken rice bowl. Also excellent are — when available — the taco stacks. And the very best part of Moe’s is Moe’s Monday, when from 11a.m. until closing you can get any entrée, queso and drink for $5.40.
It’s potential to cause heart disease is going to cost it a star, but let’s be real: I’m giving it four out of five stars and hoping the words “Welcome to Moes!” are the next three I hear.
Viva Cantina (2 1/2 Stars)
Drive straight down Danby and you can’t miss Viva. In fact, if you somehow forget to turn at the South Aurora/State Street intersection, you’ll hit it. Unlike its big business counterparts, Viva is a uniquely Ithacan local, opened in 1995 and a staple of the Commons.
It’s eat-in-menu is decent. Like Chipotle and Moes (and most places in Ithaca) Viva prides itself on its fresh, natural ingredients and premium California style Mexican food. Its food is good, in a natural, fresh way that’s significantly different from the type of food produced by a Moes or Chipotle franchise. Again, there’s no queso; the full-service Cantina does serve burritos, tacos, quesadillas, fajitas and enchiladas. It also hosts a full service bar stocked with premium tequila and margaritas.
It’s local, there’s good food and the ingredients are produced with a commitment to freshness in mind. If Viva’s establishment started and ended with the food at the Cantina, I’d be able to hand it three stars as I ordered a Fajita Burrito. Unfortunately, that’s not the case — and money matters. Unlike Moes — where chips and salsa are provided at no extra charge — Viva charges for chips. (Chipotle charges too, but at a fraction of the cost.) In comparison, entrees are also a little on the pricey side, and since you can hardly separate the meal from the check, I’ll give Viva 2.5 stars and a 15 percent tip.
Chipotle (2 Stars)
As the newest addition to the corporation conglomeration that is Meadow Street, Chipotle and Ithaca are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. Opening weekend, it took upwards of an hour to get a burrito. Every seat was always full. Half of Ithaca is still under Chipotle’s hype-driven spell. But if we’re being honest, Chipotle is a little overrated.
It seems to have embraced simplicity, offering only burritos, burrito bowls and tacos — by those names — and allowing customers to customize as they please. Potential fillings include their admittedly incredible corn salsa and guacamole, the generic rice-beans-cheese-sour cream mix and one of their four meat options. Everything offered by Chipotle meets its promise of providing “food with integrity.” The vegetables are sustainably grown, and according to Chipotle’s website, meat is only purchased from farmers with a history of “treating animals with dignity,” and treating their employees with respect.
But at the end of the day, Chipotle’s actual product seems to be a love-it or hate-it type of deal. Their meat is heavily spiced, their chips aren’t free and there’s a notable lack of queso among the assemblage of burrito fillings.
For that, Chipotle, I award you two stars and a pat on the back.
Garcia’s ( 4 1/2 Stars)
You’ve may never have heard of Garcia’s: the small, nearly-authentic Mexican restaurant sits right behind the Burger King on Elmira Rd. It’s quaintly decorated, offering a mix of southwestern and living room furnishings, and it legitimately is home to some of the best Mexican food in Ithaca.
Though not completely authentic, Garcia’s menu is a bit more cultured than Moe’s or Viva. They offer a mix of lesser-known and common Mexican appetizers, desserts and entrees — including chimichangas, burritos and cheese flutas. (In case you didn’t know, a flauta is a taquito, and at Garcia’s they come smothered in queso.)
Not all the menu offerings were entirely understandable, and the wait staff is more than understanding and willing to describe different foods and offer recommendations. The service was fast, the prices were decent and like Moes, chips and salsa were provided for free.
Unlike Moe’s (and Chipotle and Viva), however, nowhere in the restaurant was there a mention of organic produce, fresh ingredients or “food integrity,” nor was there an emphasis on vegan or even vegetarian options. In a town like Ithaca that could be a major turn off, but it hardly diminishes the quality of their food. Of the four restaurants reviewed, Garcia’s was by far my favorite.
I happily award it 4.5 starts, and just for reference, we left the waiter a 20 percent tip.