By Russ Lay on August 22, 2011
Summer is the season for reruns, but that is not the reason we are re-visiting the subject of an earlier Quick Bites.
Just as a skilled chef can transform a dish into something new with a change of spices or sauce, so has the Bad Bean undergone a modest transformation at its Kill Devil Hills location — one that raises the restaurant another notch.
Indeed, part of my motivation in re-visiting the Bad Bean has been to get the word out about this establishment. Christened the Bad Bean Taqueria when it premiered last year, the restaurant has recast itself as the Bad Bean Baja Grill.
I suspect many visitors may consider the Bad Bean just another Mexican restaurant, lumping it into the same category as the traditional “Tex-Mex” restaurants that have burgeoned of late. So let’s get one fact straight — the Bad Bean is not a restaurant that should come to mind when the kids say “Let’s eat Mexican!”
The Taqueria menu of last year certainly had roots in Mexico, along with California– what is known as “Cal-Mex”. But how do you categorize a restaurant that lists shrimp and grits on the appetizer menu (over a chorizo grit cake, of course) or dry-rubbed baby back ribs that hold their own against my beloved southern-style sauce slathered cousins?
I know the answer. The sign says Cali-Mex and Baja Grill! Think fusion, under the guidance of an owner who trained at the world-famous French Laundry and spent five years in northern California while traveling extensively in Mexico and the Baja.
Let’s start with those appetizers. My favorite is the Chips and Salsa sampler ($5.99). All of the Bad Bean’s salsas are homemade. You get a choice of three salsas from their assortment of four: Mild Salsa Fresca, Mild Salsa Verde, Medium Roasted Tomato and Jalapeno, and Hot Roasted Tomato and Habanero (and yes, it’s hot!).
This time around we took the first three salsas and loved each one. I really liked the verde, but the roasted tomato imparted a smoky flavor, while the fresca reminded me of the fresh-vegetable/cilantro salsas common in the Yucatan.
The nachos, at $8.99 are piled high and we saw quite a few leave the kitchen that night. The aforementioned shrimp and grits ($9.50) features fresh local grilled shrimp served with Monterrey Jack cheese and chorizo grit cake toasted on the griddle, with a red chili enchilada sauce and smoky slaw.
Need I say more? I will.
Chef Matt Payne, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (New York) who worked under Rob at the Left Bank as well as the Blue Point, brought out some special appetizers to tempt our party of four. We sampled exquisitely presented citrus and chili crusted mahi and chili salt-seared tuna with fried avocado, orange, and pickled red onion. Both were outstanding.
The entrees are what we came for, so let’s get to those. The ladies split a Giant Cali Burrito with the beef brisket along with one pork barbacoa and one shredded chicken taco. (They brought back half of the burrito!). I didn’t try the chicken, but our wives noted the chicken was moist (dry chicken is one of my common complaints at many “Tex-Mex” restaurants.) For the record, these burritos ($8.50) are at least 20 ounces and more than a meal for two.
I went the same route with my choice of enchiladas (three for $10.99). I also chose one of each meat. My chicken was cooked perfectly. The house red chili sauce and the melted cheese were spectacular. The Bad Bean chooses flavor over heat, and this makes all the difference in the world when it comes to seasoning a dish.
I can’t tell you how much we all loved the barbacoa and the brisket. The former is spicy, but not overwhelming, while the brisket displays that real, slow-cooked smoky flavor that defines the national meat of the Republic of Texas. Personally, I could be happy with either one on a sandwich roll or served as a standalone plate.
The biggest surprise came with our third entrée. My buddy Jay is not a fan of dry-rub ribs. Nor am I. Until recently, the only dry rub ribs I ever liked were made here on the Outer Banks at J.K’s. Knowing this was a review dinner, he took the plunge and ordered a half-rack.
J.K’s now has competition. We couldn’t get enough of these savory baby backed ribs rubbed with Ancho Cumin spice. Smoky, fall-off-the bone tender, and worth every penny (half-rack $12.99, whole rack $24), the half-rack fed both of the men and yet, we wanted more. The verde salsa side was different than the verde salsa on the appetizer menu and it burst with cilantro and guacamole flavors.
The quality of the food was so good, I now have to go back and try three more dishes; the grilled skirt steak, the shrimp or mahi burrito, and the mole burrito.
If you want a night out for Mexican, there are other choices.
Iif you wish to explore some of the best, fusion-inspired dishes on the Outer Banks with a southwestern flare, you owe yourself a trip to the Bad Bean Baja Grill. With many entrees under $10, it’s also a place the whole family can enjoy.