Though some will still complain when they see tacos priced over $1.50, it seems we're getting closer to the point where people understand that insisting that Mexican food should be categorically cheap is a tad offensive.
So $5 tacos are not a bad thing. I recently ate some priced between $5 and $13 that were excellent. The tacos arabes at La Noria are $4, and $20 for a plate of five is a bargain.
But Clementina — the temporary Latin restaurant-food truck-shipping container bar concept in a plaza in downtown Detroit's Capitol Park, a project of Townhouse's and Prime and Proper's Jeremy Sasson — gets a few things wrong in its approach. The tacos are made with what are quality and creative ingredients, and $5 isn't too much to ask. But they simply don't taste good and the whole operation isn't executed as well as it could be.
One can speculate that perhaps this is a result of Clementina's status as a side project for Sasson and Prime and Proper chef Ryan Prentiss. The idea for Clementina was floated this spring, and it opened not long after. Prentiss oversees the restaurant, and much of the food is prepared across the street at Prime and Proper. One gets the impression that some of the issues here could be resolved with a little more attention, and maybe diners who are paying between $5 and $13 for Clementina's tacos and small plates deserve that.
For starters, none of three tacos on its menu came particularly hot. Instead they ranged between room temperature and lukewarm. The tortillas are flat and absorb — instead of complement — the flavor. The al pastor, which comes with what Clementina says is charcoal fire-spit roasted pork, pineapple, yuzukosh seasoning, onion, and cilantro was surprisingly bland for having all those exciting ingredients. Beyond that, the hunks of pineapple were too large. Many al pastor chefs will put a pineapple at the top of the vertical spit on which the pork is prepared. The juices drip down the meat, adding a sweet dimension. But the huge hunks of pineapple dominated the taco instead of enhancing each bite — I couldn't even finish it, which says something.
The mushroom barbacoa was more flavorful and slightly warmer with a mix of hearty, chewy shrooms flavored with epazote and sesame, but the crema was ladled on so thick that it dominated the flavor, erupted from the tortilla with each bite, covering my fingers.
The shrimp tacos were lukewarm, but held the best flavor — a result of the spiced aioli, red cabbage, orange segments, cilantro, and crunchy sweet coconut ribbons. Still, though it was the warmest of the bunch, it was lukewarm.
Moving beyond the menu's taco selection, the lox tostada held bright guajillo-cured salmon and arrived with what could have been a nice mix of capers, preserved lemon, dill sprigs, and mint. But the preserved lemon hunks were too large. Preserved lemon is a wonderful thing when it accents a dish, but it's overpowering if it isn't properly diced. Coupled with the healthy ration of capers, the whole package was too salty.
These are noticeable problems, but they're also easy issues to fix. So why haven't they been?
Clementina's heirloom salsa was mushy and could've used some salt. The guajillo-bacon jam, fried egg, and avocado in the Clementina sandwich was nice, but didn't work well with the griddled concha, a Mexican sweetbread that in this case was particularly dry. The summer ceviche's leche de tigre — the citrus marinade used to cure fish in ceviche, that in this case is slightly oily and holds some depth — was a highlight, but the flavor hadn't yet penetrated the shrimp and octopus, as it should in ceviche. The best item we tried was the pata negra, with razor-thin slices of salty, flavorful ham, sheep's milk cheese, and saffron-pickled onion and veggies on "Catalan" toast.
The frozen drinks were boozy, and perhaps the bar is the best way to approach Clementina. After all, the space itself is stylish. Sasson set up a small, temporary outdoor eating area filled with bright, tropical turquoise and pink, with plenty of greenery overhead — a scene that's unique for Detroit. If the food was better, this could be a go-to summer spot. But then again, maybe not. Clementina slapped cheesy, cringeworthy phrases like "Que pasa, Detroit?" on the truck, adding to a somewhat offensive Taco Bell vibe.
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