The Return Of Two Men Chew: Food Criticism In a Pandemic

by Stu

Well, it’s been a while since we’ve put together a new restaurant review. Thu has been up in Novato working on projects with his band The Singer And The Songwriter (formerly Ampersand), touring and whatnot; and I’ve been training tirelessly for my debut in the Tokyo Olympics skateboarding events. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that a once-every-century pandemic would rear its ugly head like clockwork this year. Bye-bye, Summer Games debut (my inspirational podium moment will have to wait). Beginning in early March, areas of California were required to quarantine, which affected local businesses in every sector but most notably bars and restaurants. What better time to revive a restaurant review blog?

Thu and I started this blog in 2012 with the express purpose of eating a 5-pound burrito (El Tepeyac is still open and thriving at the Boyle Heights location, by the way), but we didn’t anticipate the twists and turns of local food trends over the next 6-8 years: cronuts, cruffins, avocado toast… a scale-tipping, record-breaking burrito was the most straightforward meal we would enjoy for a while.

Some of those establishments vanished pre-pandemic under the weight of the restaurant industry’s general competitiveness. Pitfire Pizza, Hummus Republic, Glazed Donut Bistro, 7th Street Cafe, Old San Juan (the list goes on), have all bit the dust (Cheeto dust, the best kind) shortly after their reviews went live—proving the power of Thu and Stu’s palates. But in the midst of COVID-19, more of our favorite spots—including Cafe Orleans in Disneyland—have been forced to shutter, hopefully temporarily, making it harder than ever to find a good Monte Cristo sandwich. (Fuck.)

Over the past four months, Americans have learned to cope with the sudden social isolation and dearth of good dining options—hell, some of you have even learned how to cook. Masked faces, six-foot distancing rules, and hyper sanitized surfaces have made normal food service operations a bitch, but restaurants have come to grips with this stark reality by adapting to carryout and delivery options. Ubereats, Postmates, and the other one, have all given line cooks and executive chefs a reason to live; and in some cases, the extortion-like fees these apps siphon from the businesses make it barely worth the effort. And then those fuckers have the nerve to forget my soy sauce! (Luckily, I always replenish my Kikkoman, man.) But at least these favorite spots won’t go down without a fight.

Take Tocaya Organica, for instance. The beloved fresh Mexican chain, which offers vegan options and a delightful array of aguas fresca and margaritas, adopted their own clever ploy early in the pandemic. Over the past year, they’ve been feverishly opening new locations offering a colorful atmosphere with build-your-own-tacos and slightly bougie prices. The newest location was opened just down the street from my casa in Del mar, shortly before lockdown, then (in classic grand opening/grand closing fashion) shut down again. But two months later, the location reopened to great fanfare (from me, at least), and the timing couldn’t have been better because it seemed like a competing, hip Mexican joint just opened in the same plaza called Burritos Locos! Look at me, with all these Mexican options and nowhere to go!

As it turns out, Burritos Locos was just a ruse: Much like Chuck E. Cheese’s ‘Pasqually’s Pizza’ UberEats trickery, Burritos Locos is just a COVID-survival tactic that Tocaya has employed to double-dip and stay afloat by their owner, The Madera Group. How do I know this? Because I spent 20 minutes looking for Burritos Locos and eventually went into Tocaya and asked the kid behind the counter if he knows where it is: “Uh, how did you hear about that? We do it out of our kitchen, but it’s kind of a secret.” Kind of a secret? If I wasn’t wearing a mask he would have seen me LOL. I asked him if I could just order a Burritos Locos burrito at Tocaya and pick it up, then. He says, “No, you have to use a delivery app.” I glanced around the lovingly decorated brass-and-seafoam green dining room which only the delivery guys would be appreciating for a while, and said, “Okay, thanks.”

While we are all still living with limited dining options during the pandemic, Two Men Chew will focus on how our favorite chains and local restaurants are coping, grocery stores and which grocery delivery services are worth your money, and what you can do to make your home-cooking a little bit more exciting. Chew on that.

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