If I was pressed to describe the food at Muertos Kitchen & Lounge, I’d use the phrase stylish bar food. The bar is usually set pretty low in bars for a decent meal. If it’s hot and preferably greasy, it’ll satisfy. The kitchen here has always aimed higher.
It’s been years since we devoted a full column to this wonderful downtown institution owned and operated by longtime restaurateur Shawna Haddad-Byers, and it’s a menu that is still a pleasant minefield after you’ve been in the place a few times. Meaning that there are so many items that have created fond memories, such as the Hudson burger ($11.75) with the bacon and fried egg on top that’s a lot like the wonderful creation from Moo Creamery that we raved about recently. But there are some other excellent choices that we’ve heard about that were new to us, such as my companion’s Basque lamb tacos ($13.75), which readers have told me to order.
I understand why so many would love these, especially anyone fond of a juicy, garlicky lamb. A large part of the appeal is the simplicity: three pairs of soft corn tortillas stuffed with shredded lettuce and these delectable chunks of lamb (cooked medium — not overcooked) and blue cheese crumbles. This needs no sauce, no salsa, though there was a green salsa served with either my beef tacos or hers that somehow ended up on one of the tacos. I’d go with them unadorned, the best to savor the juicy, tangy lamb taste. Presenting them in a paper-lined plastic basket seems appropriate despite the higher-end taste. You can also get the lamb on top of French fries ($12.75) or in a salad ($14.85) if you prefer.
That night I ordered something else I’d never tried before, the shredded beef tacos ($8.50), buried under an avalanche of shredded cheddar and not much lettuce. No complaints from me. The beef was moist and mildly seasoned. Nothing too pronounced.
On a second visit, we ordered one of those appetizers I’ve been told about, the deep-fried drive in burrito ($7.25) served with a healthy portion of fries. Though our waitress referenced school cafeterias and places like the Crest as we chatted while ordering it, I think that’s selling this simple delight short. It’s a small chimichanga filled with refried beans and cheese, and you wish they’d whip together a huge version of exactly the same thing. That monster version would have absolutely no nostalgic value, but like the lamb it had a winning simplicity.
For entrees, my companion chose her old favorite, the grilled salmon salad ($15.50), which she loves based on the excellent mesclun greens beneath the simply seasoned and grilled salmon that was a bit larger than the old “deck of cards” size all the nutritionists recommend for protein sources. If you’re trying to eat healthy, it’ll feel like you’re cheating. She noted the tiny chunks of avocado, red onions and tomatoes were the perfect finishing touches. I understand why she orders it regularly.
I wanted to order the Hudson but thought I’d check out the James burger ($10.75), which had grilled onions and lots of veggies like lettuce, tomato and pickle. I didn’t miss the bacon and egg as much as I thought, as the beef patty had the same juicy, fresh beefy taste as my favorite.
As you can imagine the beer, wine, specialty drinks and other beverage choices are thoughtful, varied and tempting. On one visit I sampled an English ale from Santa Maria that was startling. It’s one of six drafts on tap including Guinness, Modelo Especial and Modelo Negra. In the past we have enjoyed the blood orange jalapeno margarita, which is still available.
Other menu choices we can recommend from previous Muertos visits include the pork popcorn appetizer ($9.50), the homeboy sandwich (bacon, jack cheese and grilled serrano peppers; $11.75), the shrimp tacos ($13.75) and the “halibut salsa” ($15) a ceviche that is quite intriguing. Anything made with carne asada and chile verde is good too. The back patio has a cool vibe and working heaters for these very cool nights. It’s covered and quite secluded from everything around it.
Muertos Kitchen & Lounge can be recommended for a fine dining experience.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.