Smile Politely

Pretty plates lack some punch

Last weekend I went to Escobar’s in downtown Champaign for a Sunday brunch. Most places serving brunch have traditional American favorites and a few more “lunchy” items. Escobar’s, though, is true to its Nuevo Latino cuisine, and offers Central American riffs on traditional American breakfast.

We arrived to a mostly empty restaurant. There were maybe three parties seated in the dining room, but there weren’t any wait staff to be found. As we waited at the host stand, another party came in behind us, and a few minutes passed before an overwhelmed waiter came to seat us. As we were seated, the waiter indicated that he was the only person working — a haphazard apology for the wait at the door, and a foreshadowing of the service we were to receive.

The waiter hurried on to the next group waiting to be seated, and we looked at our menus. The menu is carefully curated and limited: there are two pages of food items, plus one for beverages. To create the brunch menu, Escobar’s takes its appetizers (offered at all meal times, including lunch and dinner), its lunch salads and tortas, and adds four entrées exclusive to brunch. It’s actually kind of refreshing to read such a menu; it certainly favors the –unch part of brunch. All of the menu items are firmly situated within what the general public might consider “Central American” cuisine, although I’d point out that some things might be diluted to be more accessible to the average diner. The brunch drink menu is limited to two varieties of bloody marys ($7 and $8), and three varieties of mimosas (orange, peach, cranberry; $7). Tea, coffee, juice, and milk round out the beverage selections ($2 – $3.75).

When the waiter returned, we placed our orders for coffees, appetizers, and entrées.

To start, I ordered a Latin latté — coffee served with cinnamon and vanilla ($3.50). The drink was quite beautiful and decadent. It was topped with whipped cream, and I was a little confused. Perhaps that was the milk part of the latté? I didn’t think too much about it, swirled in the whipped cream, and took a sip. I was sorely disappointed. The coffee was incredibly watery and thin, and disgustingly sweet. It tasted like a shot of vanilla flavor syrup, but at the consistency of water. When the waiter came by to top off my mug with regular coffee, I obliged thinking that the regular coffee would help with the syrup water in my mug, but I had no such luck. The coffee he poured in was also really watery, and the drink was completely undrinkable. It was a huge let down. 

As we waited for appetizers, our waiter brought over a basket of mango muffins — they looked beautiful. When I broke into mine, though, there was no trace of mango. The muffins were good, don’t get me wrong. They were pretty moist, slightly sweet but not overly so, and served warm. But mango? Not quite.
Brunch wasn’t off to a great start, but at least I had some tasty muffin in my guts.

My husband ordered a cup of chicken noodle soup to start, and that arrived promptly. The soup was good enough, but nothing particularly special. It was a little salty and rich with the flavor of thyme.

Two appetizers worth highlighting are the El Salvadoran pupusa and the platano frito served with black beans and sour cream (both $7). The pupusa is a traditional Salvadoran tortilla, but instead of the thin varieties you’d find as the wrap for a taco, for example, the pupusa is a thick, stuffed corn tortilla. It’s sort of like the thick tortilla you’d find in the form of a sope or a huarache, but instead of plopping the toppings on top of the corn patty, one stuffs the pupusa. The platano frito is a fried plantain served with black beans and sour cream; this simple combination of ingredients is really a delight, so give it a try sometime.

On this visit, though, we opted to start our brunch with the pupusa. Escobar’s stuffs the corn tortilla with black beans and Monterey Jack cheese, places the patty on a pool of guajillo cream sauce, and then tops with curtido slaw. This is definitely the most traditional Salvadoran/Central American item on the menu, and well worth a try, and large enough to share as an appetizer between two to four people. The guajillo is a type of chili pepper, and the cream sauce on which the pupusa sat was more or less equivalent to a roasted red pepper cream sauce, but the flavor of the pepper slightly different than a regular red bell pepper. The sauce wasn’t too creamy, and had a significant acidic kick. The pupusa was incredibly rich; between the cornmeal, black beans, and cheese, there was enough to satisfy the stomach. The curtido slaw topping — another traditional Salvadoran dish, which is fermented cabbage slaw — not only matched the acid of the guajillo sauce, but also provided some much needed crunch to the soft tortilla.

The pupusa took about 20 minutes to arrive, and looked, like everything else, beautiful. (By this time, the husband had already finished his soup.) The wait time for this might have been forgiven some if the restaurant was packed (it was not), if the coffee was good (it was not), and if I wasn’t starving (which I was). So when the pupusa arrived, I immediately dug in. I was getting busy with pupusa when my Guatemalan breakfast abruptly arrived, which meant something was going to get cold, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat a cold breakfast (especially when it should be served hot). This was flat out poor timing.

I ordered the Guatemalan breakfast ($9) as my entrée: two fried eggs with black bean sauce, sour cream, guacamole, fried plantains, and tortillas, served with fresh fruit.  The plate looked amazing. It was full and colorful, but there were a few things amiss. Firstly, the waiter didn’t ask how I wanted my eggs. They were served over easy, so when I broke the yolks, it was a runny yellow mess all over my plate. Even though I’m more of an eggs-over-medium type of girl, I wasn’t too offended by this, but I know several people who would be less than pleased by runny egg yolk on their plate. The runny yolk did take away from the black bean sauce and because the whites were completely set, it was all in all a messy endeavor. The black bean sauce was just that: a thin sauce of pureed black beans (or black bean liquid) underneath the eggs. It didn’t have much texture, and tasted salty. There wasn’t any sour cream on my plate, unfortunately. There was some guacamole and a little bit of pico. I didn’t pay the pico much attention, but that guacamole is delish. Even though it wasn’t listed on the menu, my dish was served with a small salad. The dressing was good, the lettuce crisp. It was a nice side salad. There were four pieces of fried plantains on my plate, and they were quite good. The plantains weren’t overly ripe, so there was still some structure when I bit in. And even with the caramelization from frying, they weren’t too sweet. The fruit salad was uninteresting, especially since I don’t like pineapple. I ate the grapes and gifted the rest to my husband. The two tortillas were warmed, and were helpful in trying to sop up my liquidy egg/black bean mess.

So here’s the thing about my breakfast — it was huge, but not amazing. The food was just fine, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to eat it. The two people I had brunch with ordered the omelet ($10; eggs, chorizo, Monterey Jack cheese, tomatoes, peppers, served with hash browns and fresh fruit) and the Escobar’s Eggs Benedict ($9; poached eggs over pulled pork on an English muffin with chipotle-lime hollandaise, served with hash browns and fresh fruit). Their breakfasts looked like less food than mine, and the omelet was more expensive. Both of their breakfasts were similar to mine in terms of flavor in that they were fine, but not all that special. The pulled pork on the eggs benedict wasn’t all that tasty or flavorful, but the chipotle-lime hollandaise was promising. The hash browns on both plates tasted like a frozen bag mix. They were bland and as one of my fellow diners described, “over-moisturized.” (Which I am meant to understand as moist potatoes that didn’t taste like much — they were just wet textures.)

Slow brunch service seems to be par for the course in this town, and with only one person tending to five to eight tables, to be expected. I can forgive the slow service; our waiter was really friendly. But I’m not sure that I can forgive mediocre food. There is so much potential to have the food be amazing. There are other things in place to provide the one-two knock out punch for brunch: (at least one) friendly wait staff, lovely plating, interesting ingredients, a menu that proclaims loyalty and commits to a specific cuisine flavor profile. With a few adjustments to the execution of the food, it could be so, so good.

Escobar’s is located at 6 East Columbia Avenue, Champaign. It’s open for brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Drinks and appetizers are available Friday and Saturday 10 p.m.-2 a.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.

Photos by Jessica Hammie

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