And friendly it is. I hadn’t been there more than five minutes when a wine-biz couple I know came over to say hi — all the while keeping an eye on their son who was taking full advantage of the play area. And then a guy with a pony tail down his back dropped his bike next to my table, offered to buy me a beer (I was drinking Brooklyn Brown Ale — fortunately for him on special) and proceeded to regale me about being at one with the Tarahumara Indians at the bottom of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. And his four girlfriends. Among other things. The Friendly Spot is like that — all ages, all types, no barriers … and, most of the time, one hopes, no regrets.
At least I had none. (I should mention that the pecan trees were popping leaves, the late-afternoon sky was a Renaissance blue behind scudding clouds, and a stiff breeze was blowing away anything without ballast.) The new Friendly Spot is an homage to a long-gone but legendary burger joint just up the street, but with better food and, at least at this time of the year, better ambience.
So, you might already expect that the beer selection is prodigious and eclectic, and it is. The food, however, is a little surprising. The owners have managed to create a Southtown version of a casual Mexican jardin with the added gracia of huge pecan trees, nostalgic-casual garden furniture and, it bears mentioning again, much better beer. If you’re willing to accept small portions of mostly spot-on Mexican street food — or are, in fact, in search of it — this is the place for you.
My introduction one balmy night was quick: a shrimp michelada and a taste of a friend’s chicken mole tamal in banana leaves. The michelada (you have beer choices) is punchy and invigorating, but the shrimp component consists of a single specimen draped over the rim. This is fine if you’re drinking dinner (which I sorta was), but an additional shrimp, even at a higher price, would have made me feel a little less guilty. The tamal was serious, good, and just a touch sweet.
At $4, the tamal with shrimp, spinach, asiago and tomato is the most expensive of the banana-wrapped options — and, with its addition of cream cheese, the least nominally authentic. But the result is at once creamy, earthy, and great with a beer as robust as the Brooklyn Brown. Even better with the beer, however, was the taquito of cochinita pibil ($2), chunks of pork oozing with achiote-infused oil, cooked in a banana leaf, and served in a mini corn tortilla with the pickled onion that is a quasi-constant garnish. Many paper napkins will be sacrificed in the act of eating.
Don’t stop there, however. Also muy sabroso con cerveza is the trio of quesadillas ($4) with your choice of filling of the moment. Mine happened to be queso cotija with nicely charred rajas, and the three were gone in no time. A guacamole version, tucked into folded corn tortillas, seems to be regularly available.
Guacamole also underpins the almost laughingly lettuced chalupa de ceviche Veracruz ($6). You have to first take it on faith the there is indeed ceviche beneath the mound of shredded greens, but persevere. Yes, you’ll look a little ridiculous to start, but the friendly Friendly folks won’t mind. The package is appealing enough, but if you really want to taste the ceviche in its own, order one solo with fresh black drum and the usual accompaniments — including an unstinting amount of oregano. At $7 it’s equaled in price only by the torta selection, apparently still in development. (p.s., it’s bolillo, not bollio.)
Or, if food tourism isn’t on the day’s agenda, you can simply have an order of very crisp chips with black beans and a sprinkling of cotija with your beer or wine. The place alone will be destination enough for some, and you never know who might drop by. — Ron Bechtol
p.s. Since this review was first written, there has apparently been a shakeup in the makeup at Friendly, and former Madhatters proprietor Rene Guerrero is no longer involved. To check on the status of the food without its source of inspiration, we returned to the scene to check it out. Verdict? Still fine. A taquito of pescado Tikin-Zik was entirely too precious at about three inches in diameter, but the flavors (achiote-baked drum with lusty chipotle mayo) were good and the tiny tortilla equally fine. It took a while to release the Oaxacan tamal de pollo y verde from its swaddling of copious banana leaves (and they did influence the flavor), but the effort was worth it. A locally brewed Real Ale Full Moon Pale Rye was an altogether amiable companion.