Review: Gutierrez Restaurant in Salina

We went to Salina for a wedding, visited our friend Susan, and ate out with her at Gutierrez restaurant, one of her favorites.  She’s taken us there once before and both times the food has been pretty good.  The service, however, can only accurately be described by one word: “evil.”
This is an Americanized Mexican restaurant.  The atmosphere is fun and artistic, a nice example of the Amerimexican genre of overly-stylized “phony authenticity.”  It’s worth a trip to this restaurant just to see what they’ve done with the place.  The walls of the dining room are covered with the same type of hand-painted-mural-depicting-stereotypes-of-quaint-18th / 19th-century-village-life-in –“old Mexico” that you would expect to find in such an establishment—but it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen, with more artistry and less overt racism than you might expect from such a thing.  In a few places around the dining room, the stucco is cracked (deliberately) and you can see the bricks underneath.  That’s kinda fun.  And I liked the ceiling.  It’s golden tin.  Very shiny.  I don’t know if it quite works with the walls, but it’s cool (there’s a missing logic to the décor: the walls are clearly meant to be the outside walls of an outdoor courtyard overgrown with vines and the ceiling is clearly meant to be the view from inside an expensive can of sardines.  A skylight would have made more sense, but it wouldn’t have been as glamorous). All of this, I’m sure, is meant to provide a feeling of authenticity and tradition that you won’t exactly get from the food itself.  This would make a very good restaurant to take your high-school date to.  The set design is impressive in that way.

While not “authentic,” the food is very good for what it is: Americanized Mexican.  The menu has a good selection of vegetarian dishes, a whole section of the menu is CLEARLY LABELED “Vegetarian Options.”  Suzanne ordered off the CLEARLY LABELED vegetarian menu and got a Spinach Quesadilla with Mango and Avocado Salad.  I had a bite of her quesadilla and it was cheesy, tasty, and stuffed with lots of mushrooms and onions.  She scarfed down the salad before I could try a bite, but I don’t blame her because I had this same salad a year ago when we last visited this restaurant and I knew how good it was.  I believe that I also scarfed mine down last year.  Susan ordered off the CLEARLY LABELED vegetarian menu too and got something they call the “Scofield Special,” which turned out to be a giant vegetarian burrito.  She couldn’t eat it all and took over half of it home.   I’d had what I wanted from the CLEARLY LABELED vegetarian menu last year, however, so I ordered off the regular menu and got a dish called a “Compuesta.”  Here’s how the dish is described in their menu (which is available online both at their website and as a PDF by clicking here):

Sautéed fresh vegetables (zucchini, squash, broccoli, red onions and sundried
tomatoes) tossed with a cream sauce and served over a bed of rice. $12.95

This sounded very good to me.  I waited half an hour or so to get it from the kitchen and all the while I was looking forward to the creamy sauce, the succulent veggies. I tried not to fill up on chips and salsa (lots of sugar in the salsa and not too many spicy things) just so I could fully enjoy the dish I’d ordered.  When I got it, I was surprised to see that the dish was full of chicken parts.  What seemed to be two full breasts of grilled chicken had been folded into the dish (not just piled on top but folded in).  I expressed my surprise to the waitress.  She revealed that she was new and didn’t know what the dish should be.  I told her that I had read the menu and the description didn’t say anything about chicken.  She excused herself and disappeared for at least five full minutes.  When she returned, she had clearly been put up to trying a ploy on me.  She explained that I had not ordered from the CLEARLY LABELED vegetarian menu and that the dish I had ordered did contain chicken.   Ahh.  . . . It was my fault. I had not correctly read the menu.  The only problem with a ploy like this is that I’m not an idiot and that trying something like this is only going to piss me off.  I, of course, responded: “let me see that menu.”  My waitress disappeared for another five minutes and returned with the manager / owner guy in tow.  He took over at this point and opened the menu to the page I had ordered from and, believe it or not, pointed to a different dish on the page and said that the dish I had ordered clearly contained chicken.  The dish he was pointing to did clearly contain chicken.  I called his bluff, explained that I understood that he was referencing the wrong dish, and read him the correct entry just in case he thought I could not read (maybe his usual clientele really is high school kids).  He then explained to me that since I had not ordered from the CLEARLY LABELED vegetarian menu, there wasn’t much he could do.  “Everyone who comes here,” he explained, “knows the menu and knows that this is just a typo and that the dish does contain chicken."    This was infuriating and slimy.  Was this restaurant really that desperate to make 12.95?  Apparently, they were.  After I shot down the logic of trying to blame me for not understanding the menu, the manager / owner guy offered to take the dish back to the kitchen and take out the chicken.  Now I’ve worked in restaurants and I know that all they will do is to pick out the chicken and zap my food and send it back out.  If I’m really, really lucky, I’ll get it back without somebody’s spit in it—but I kinda got the feeling I wasn’t going to be that lucky this time so I decided to keep the dish.  I picked out the chicken myself and set it aside and ate the rest.  The sauce was creamy enough and flecked with pepper.  The vegetables were nicely cooked in a way that left the summer squashes tender yet still slightly firm.  I couldn’t find the sun-dried tomatoes, but I sensed that they might be in there somewhere.   Susan took the chicken home in her to-go box.    

The food was better than it should have been; the décor was muy fantastico; the service was infected with greed.  I don’t blame our waitress for any of what happened with my order.  She was just trying to do her job and was clearly operating under the guidance of the cheap-ass she worked for.  My guess is that she probably won’t work there for long.  She’ll move on to a better place, one with a bit more class, just as all the waitresses before her have probably done.
Two other notes not really related to the restaurant: First, as a vegetarian and someone interested in losing weight (I’ve lost 55 pounds as a vegetarian), I was impressed by how much chicken I didn’t eat.  The dish included at least two grilled chicken breasts worth of chicken.  That’s several hundred calories I set aside.  And the dish was plenty filling enough without the meat.  I’m not such a strict vegetarian that I am grossed out about the chicken (I even ate a small bit of chicken at Easter when my mother-in-law cooked chicken for the family), but it was interesting that I actually had to fight about whether or not the dish should have chicken in it.  The meat-oriented cultural assumptions at play are interesting to observe.  And fights and experiences like this are just part of what it is to be mostly vegetarian in a meaty state like Kansas.

The second note concerns other foodstuffs of the day.  I made us a hearty breakfast to fuel our road trip (Salina is about an hour and a half away from Wichita).  I made a creamy gravy for my leftover biscuits and cooked us up two omelets with chives and mozzarella cheese.  Later in the day, after the restaurant, Susan gave us a treat.  Susan is herself an excellent cook and made us a nice dessert. She’d baked a homemade pound cake and when she served it up, she topped it with strawberries and blueberries and whipped cream.   It was exquisite.  She got her pound-cake recipe from the Fannie Farmer Book of Baking.

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