by Ron Betchtol
The Empty Stomach restaurant group has given us some memorable places over the years: the much-missed Monterey in Southtown (ah, those burgers); neighborhood-friendly Barbaro (endlessly inventive pizzas); and, of course, nationally noted Hot Joy with its over-the-top tattoo décor and almost-Asian plates and bowls. And now comes semi-Mex Chisme on the St. Mary’s Strip. My stomach is rumbling.
Or maybe it’s me grumbling in general. Despite some witty touches such as the rogue’s gallery of plaster saints and some exquisitely detailed copper fixtures by Isaac Maxwell Metal, the décor seems unresolved — especially when compared (unfairly, to be sure) to exuberant Hot Joy. A door masking the kitchen is sorely needed. Despite good chips and salsas, early eating experiences were equally lackluster. A plate of cochinita pibil strayed way too far from the classic norm to merit the name; cheesed-up guacamole needed alma — plus lime and salt; drinks, normally the group’s strong suit, were watery and unbalanced…
My dyspepsia may not be at an end, but there are signs that the kitchen, at least, is getting ahold of itself. That guacamole con chisme with cotijo cheese had genuine spunk the second time around. And if the queso con chisme seemed overwrought (there’s guacamole and refried beans lurking under the molten surface somewhere, but good luck scooping them up), the straight-on queso that comes free with happy hour chips and salsa is just right. Note that the normal 4-6 p.m. happy hour is all day on Tuesday and take advantage.
That cochinita fared better on time two as well. Where before the slab of grilled pork had clearly met the sauce for the first time on the plate (the pork is usually marinated for several hours with achiote paste, cumin, sour orange, garlic, oregano and more — then wrapped in banana leaves before grilling or slow baking), this time the meeting may have been Tinder-quick — with no banana leaves in attendance, but there was at least a degree of compatibility; the orange sauce didn’t have the metallic tang of serious achiote, but it was reasonably convincing; and marinated onions added the necessary, vinegary accent.
Also tried twice was the beef cheek barbacoa. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this dish. The cachetes make for much less greasy barbacoa than is often the case; the accompanying fried, cubed potatoes dutifully play second fiddle. But there’s also not anything particularly interesting about it — including the green onion “kimchee.” We asked for salsa to be returned to the table. The same can be said for the “live-fire” pollo asado with charred onions and “dressed” cabbage. The chicken was dutifully blackened and appealingly moist, but otherwise lacked chispa, or spark. We had to ask for limes to further dress the cabbage.
But for every indifferent dish, there’s a good one. Jícama fresca with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and an enigmatic (and undetectable) tamarind “vin”? Don’t bother. Though the charred brussel sprouts with guajillo mole and peanuts may be a hot mess, they make for an entirely enjoyable mess. Don’t miss them. Green chile butter seems a strange description for the salsa verde that bathes the succulent, grilled Gulf shrimp, but it’s a good sauce nonetheless. And if I’m inherently suspicious of the accompanying “tamal” that appears to have been created in a sheet pan, then just ignore me; the flat pieces soak up the green sauce just fine.
By now, I’ve been to Chisme five times and, it should come as no surprise, have sampled just about every cocktail. Admitting that obsessing over ice can get to be a bore, I nevertheless think that most drinks here are too loosey-icey. Rye by the Beach with allspice dram and tepache almost worked, but La Pistola with tequila, coffee liqueur and rum didn’t. The Maracuja Mule, a potent blend of vodka, passion fruit and house-made ginger beer, surprised with its intensity of spunky flavors. But the Chorreado, a promising-sounding blend of scotch, chocolate hoja santa syrup, mole and cream, came across as chocolate syrup and cream over crushed ice, little more. Yet, at only $5 during happy hour, the 32-ounce michelada is both punchy and prodigious — and just icy enough. No wonder the patio and parking lot were both full.
Five times and only one dessert. Fortunately, it was an extremely good one. I’m talking about the passion fruit and coconut tres leches. The flavors mesh beautifully — nutty and creamy against tart and fruity, the cake’s texture is almost custardy, and the plate is muy guapo to boot. Belly now full, grumbling at an end.