Nalbandian Nosh: April/May

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Mira Nalbandian

We ventured out of our house into the great unknown just to bring you this month’s food review.

We know what you’re thinking: you had to sit around all throughout April, devoid of a food review and therefore devoid of places to eat. We’ve had the same feeling. Unfortunately, quarter four has brought the Nalbandians new schedules, new commitments and a new shoulder. So, please accept our humble apology for grouping our spring reviews together, we really mean it. But never fear, loyal readers, we could never truly forget about you. We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, reminding ourselves that our dedicated fans were waiting for us, and finally ground out a wonderful fresh review for you all. We brought you something extra special for April and May: an in-person restaurant. Since our family is now vaccinated, and our restaurant of choice feels safe allowing guests back in, we thought we’d end the year with a bang. So, we won’t make your agonizing wait last any longer, feast your eyes on our thoughts about the Mexican cuisine from Uncle Julio’s.

The Herbivore’s Food

Mira Nalbandian

Grilled Vegetable Fajitas For One Mesquite grilled vegetables including zucchini, yellow squash, portobello mushrooms, sautéed peppers and onions. Served with fresh guacamole, sour cream, cheese, pico de gallo with our homemade flour tortillas and black beans. $17.50

I must start off by saying how nice it was to be in a restaurant again. After getting my vaccine, I’ve still been trying to be pretty careful, and if I went to restaurants they were uncrowded and lowkey. Now though, I was super excited to be able to go to an almost normal one again. Walking in, we were hit by the sounds: lively Latin music playing in the background, the half-exposed kitchen bursting with life and flavor and the talking, laughter and joy of fellow patrons. Uncle Julio’s seemed to be at full capacity — nearly every table and booth was filled. It was certainly an adjustment for me to see that and feel comfortable, but I knew I had the CDC’s new guidelines and two weeks of vaccination buffer time under my belt.

We were fortunately seated in the booth that was as close to the kitchen as we could possibly be, meaning that we were as close to the food as we could possibly be. When our chips and salsa were brought to the table, I realized how much I had missed that evil practice in many American Mexican restaurants of tempting you to eat your entire weight in free food before you even get to your main course. Nonetheless, Uncle Julio’s knew I couldn’t resist their smoky, fresh salsa, as they continued to bring us basket upon basket of fresh chips. 

Well, if you know anything about my family, let it be that we’ll never let good food go to waste, and these chips weren’t going to eat themselves. We decided to ease the process along by ordering the Chile Con Queso, minus cow flesh, which is best described by my parents as having an ‘old school’ flavor, which just gave me another wonderful chance to remind them of their increasing ages. Whatever ‘old school’ means to you, the Chile Con Queso was very delicious, with a perfectly creamy consistency. My only complaint was that it wasn’t as spicy as you’d think, but no matter, there’s always plenty of time for spice.

Skimming over the rest of Uncle Julio’s menu, which was relatively succinct, I was a little disappointed to see that they didn’t have an overwhelming amount of vegetarian options. I could’ve gotten the veggie quesadilla appetizer, but there is something so defeating as a vegetarian when you are forced to order off the appetizer menu. I refused to be intimidated. I finally found just about the only non-appetizer vegetarian option they have: Grilled Vegetable Fajitas.

Now, I must issue a warning. When you order fajitas, you construct them yourself. I have no issue with this. What I do have an issue with is eating at a somewhat small table with the large plates of your family’s glorified animal carcasses encroaching on your much-needed assembly space. I was presented with a steaming plate of mouth-watering onions, peppers and zucchini, topped with the beautiful, charred mound of sliced portobello mushrooms. And then the waitress kept coming. She brought two plates of rice and beans, an assortment of guacamole, cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo, along with four tortillas to hold everything together. The table was overwhelmed.

I ended up assembling my meal on the tortilla container lid, a perfectly worthy choice, and packed each fajita with beans, rice, vegetable filling, guacamole, sour cream, cheese and a light layer of pico de gallo. I know what you’re thinking, that poor tortilla. Well yes, it was a little stuffed, but I had to make sure I had a taste of everything. I must say, that fajita was amazing. All of the flavors combined to just make the most perfect, filling combination. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and charred, adding a wonderful smoky flavor. The creaminess of the guacamole and sour cream were the perfect topping, and the rice and beans were the simplest, most filling base. I was very impressed.

I could unfortunately only make my way through two of them, as you can probably guess they were filled to the brim each time. However, that means I have leftovers sitting in my fridge as I write this, and I consider that a win-win. Overall, I was very impressed with Uncle Julio’s vegetable fajitas. They may not have a lot of vegetarian options, but maybe that’s because they’ve spent so long perfecting this one. Well worth it in my humble opinion.

The Carnivore’s Meal

Chile Con Queso Appetizer- melted yellow queso with fresh onions, tomatoes and jalapeno peppers $7.50
Honey Habanero Shrimp Appetizer- Sweet and fiery. Mesquite-grilled jumbo shrimp stuffed with fresh minced habanero and crumbled queso fresco, wrapped in smoked bacon and topped with the honey chipotle glaze 2 for $5
Tex-Mex Combination Dinner- Beef enchilada with agave queso sauce, chicken enchilada with creamy hatch chile sauce and one crispy beef taco. Served with Mexican rice and frijoles a la charra. $16 (Mira Nalbandian)

Yes, to answer your question it was glorious to be back at an in-person restaurant. The sights and smells and the wonderful atmosphere of being with others: people who you can see and who don’t look like they are prepping for surgery. The wonderful sounds of glasses clinking in celebration and the voices of raucous laughter and pots and pans being put to use were music to these starved ears. The smells wafting from the kitchen, beautiful wonderful dancing and most importantly, not made by me just like a perfume were invigorating and heavenly. Like someone stranded on a desert island for a year finally rediscovering the world, this place was a revelation and luckily it lived up to the hype.

Upon entering you are greeted with a restaurant decor that has all of the traditional touches but is also very warm, modern and inviting. Copious amounts of rough-hewn hardwoods and dark iron hardware were complimented by classical soft lighting and a smiling and friendly staff to greet you. Now let’s get to the star of the show, Uncle Julio’s food.

As the veggie eater mentioned we started with a queso dip. Queso is often a melted gooey Velveeta type of dish that lacks substance or flavor, but not here. This dish proved a real treat as the chef allows the three veggies to carmelize in the pan with butter to deepen the flavor before adding a bechamel sauce and then real shredded cheddar cheese with a little swiss thrown in to give it a nutty finish. Perfect.

My son and I decided to see how hot the shrimp appetizer with bacon and chopped habanero peppers was, so we each had one. While mine was subtle and allowed the heat to build slowly, so as to not overpower the delicate flavor of the shrimp and to complement the smoky taste of the bacon, it also had a little sweetness from the butter-based honey sauce. This dish was delightful and will not harm anyone who may be afraid of hot food.

The threatening but eventually rather mild habanero shrimp. (Mira Nalbandian)

The entree was a combination of four items (as is typical of most Mexican-American restaurants). Here, I’ll take them one at a time. Let’s start with the crispy taco with a shell that started the morning as dried corn kernels, and was filled with spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. This was bright and light but the shell didn’t disintegrate at the first bite. The meat was spiced just right with notes of chile and cumin and the veggies were crisp and cool and not limp and mushy as is sometimes the case. That same meat was wrapped in a soft flour tortilla and coated with the same queso from the apps to make an enchilada, also delicious. 

The chicken enchilada was a slow-roasted selection of white breast meat cooked with tomatoes and chile and cumin wrapped in a flour tortilla and ladled with a verde and queso blanco. This was delicate, full of flavor and showed how a slow simmer sometimes is preferred to a hot fire. 

The last portion was the beans. Now, please don’t think we are talking about the canned mush spread you often find at certain drive-thru restaurants, this was a slow-cooked from scratch pinto bean dish flavored with chile and onion and complemented with a little ground beef. By far the best I’ve had. In fact, Uncle Julios prides itself on being scratch-made. Is there any other way to be? Not for us, we will be returning very soon.

Zaven Nalbandian Jr. and Zaven Nalbandian III smile for a picture at Uncle Julio’s restaurant in Frontenac. (Mira Nalbandian)