I like free stuff, although I realize nothing is really free.
Anything the government says is free will cost somebody, usually the taxpayer. A lot of businesses advertise “buy one, get one free,” but if you compare prices, you’ll usually find the price of one item has already been marked up more than what it originally sold for — or it’s out of date, damaged or surplus. It’s not free.
Even free appetizers offered at some restaurants are not really free, as the cost already has been figured into the total price of each meal.
This probably is why restaurants known for high-quality, expensive entrées don’t offer free appetizers. They can’t afford to raise the price of their prime steaks or foie gras (duck liver). Even wealthy customers may choose to go somewhere else (or subtract the price increase from their tip).
I don’t frequent high-end restaurants, and I don’t mind it that restaurants like the Catfish House in Adel might add a few cents to my catfish platter so they can offer me a bowl of “free” sweet pickles. Barbecue restaurants in North Carolina give me a basket of “free” hush puppies or corn bread sticks right after they take my order. Barbecue is not a bank-buster food item, so I don’t mind paying a little extra. Besides, I love their hush puppies and corn bread sticks.
Most of the Mexican restaurants are not terribly expensive either, so I don’t try to figure up how much cheaper my meal would be if they didn’t offer “free” salsa and tortilla chips — as long as the salsa is good.
The salsa at some restaurants is not something I’d pay a quarter for if it was sold as an appetizer. The salsa at a local restaurant I was told offered the “best Mexican food in town” barely qualifies as salsa. It tastes more like puréed tomatoes with just a little onion and garlic and a faint hint of cilantro. Where’s the spice? I like my salsa to wake up my taste buds and prepare me for the zesty Mexican dish I’ve ordered.
I can only suppose this restaurant’s owners are trying to appeal to what they think is an average of customer tastes. The lack of real Mexican flavor in their salsa leads me to believe their customer base consists of kids younger than 5 and adults older than 90.
I’m not trying to be mean, but in each of the three times I’ve eaten at this restaurant, I couldn’t help thinking this is the salsa talked about in that Pace commercial with cowboys being shocked that their salsa was made in New York City. Then I’d say to myself, “No, even salsa made in New York City would have more flavor than this.”
While I’m talking about commercial brands of salsas, my favorite is Tostitos’ Cantina brand roasted garlic. Tostitos and Pace are products of the Frito Lay Company, which is headquartered in Texas, a state that knows something about hot stuff. Cantina’s thinner chips go perfectly with their salsa. I usually run out of chips before I run out of salsa, so I’ll save the leftover salsa for the next time I make an omelet.
My favorite chain-restaurant salsa is at Jalapeños. Though I’ve visited several Jalapeños in Savannah, I usually visit the one in Richmond Hill. After waking my taste buds with plenty of its high-spirited salsa, I’m almost drooling by the time I’m served their Texas fajitas — steak, chicken and shrimp with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.
Sometimes, though, I’ll order their fajitas Oaxaca, which is made with the same veggies, plus steak and chorizo sausage and topped with Oaxaca cheese.
Also in Richmond Hill, there’s a Mexican restaurant behind Hardee’s that makes a great salsa. After stuffing myself with La Nopalera’s chips and salsa, I’ll order a combo plate of tacos, which I think they do a better than just about anybody. Sometimes, I’ll order their Nopalera fajitas, which includes everything — steak, chicken, shrimp and chorizo sausage with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.
If I don’t eat it all — and I usually don’t — that’s OK. I’ll take what’s left over home with me, including salsa and chips. The salsa kick-starts my taste buds while the fajitas warm up in the oven.
Email Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.