With the economy in a death spiral, we hear dire reports daily that Americans have slammed shut their wallets and refused to spend money on things like high-end electronics and expensive shoes We've even stopped eating out, they say, and restaurant owners across the nation are wringing their hands and weeping into their uneaten gnocchi.
Except that everything still seems the same to me. Is this what it was like when the Great Depression hit? Ordinary folks like you and me continued to order pizza and pick up Asian takeout until one day, a year or two later, we came home with our mu shu pork, and someone had boarded up our houses and thrown all of our stuff out onto the street? Have we been too busy thinking about whether or not the chef used domestic or imported sesame oil to notice that we forgot to pay our mortgages?
I'm not the only one who seems to worry that the dangerous economic pitfalls don't seem to be as obvious as the investment bankers tell me they are. When I walked into Tastebuds American Bistro the other evening, it was packed. I was lucky, in fact, to get a table. Where was the angst, the tightening of belts? No one seemed particularly concerned about the economy, and one large party with a baby in tow seemed downright celebratory. Maybe everyone had just glanced at the menu and noticed that none of the prices topped $15.
Now, Tastebuds, once takeout food only, seems to have skimped just a little bit when it transformed itself into a regular restaurant. The owners haven't ponied up the bucks for some tablecloths, for one thing, and the wood-grain laminate tabletops are a little jarring in a place that really seems to want to provide fine-dining ambience with affordable pricing.
Still, they manage to do a pretty decent job of it. The dark wooden bar stretching across the back contrasts nicely with the creamy interior, and the black-and-white tiles left over from the building's days as Sammy's Bakery give the place a vaguely European feel. It's comfortable, and with a little more artwork fits nicely into the ever-so-slightly artsy North Side, whose residents fill its tables.
Tastebuds' golden beet salad isn't particularly original but is full of apples and tangy blue cheese, although not nearly enough greens. The fried oysters crunch delicately but the black-eyed peas beneath them need some additional help, flavor-wise, and the tiny tomatoes can't quite do the job.
The herbed ricotta crepe with roasted vegetables also needs some intervention to prevent blandness, and the shrimp fra diavolo, while spicy, limps along without an adequate amount of salt. In fact, I think that might be another way Tastebuds pinches pennies. Salt, in just about every dish, seems to have gone the way of rich, self-satisfied investment bankers.
However, it should be pointed out, there is a saltshaker on every table. The crab risotto cake that comes with the shrimp, although not very seafood-like, is improved immensely with a little salt, and the wild salmon, so easy to overcook and yet still moist when it arrives at your table, is transformed. Even the braised chicken quesadilla comes alive when you pry open the tortilla and lavish the interior with a couple of much-needed shakes.
You can leave the pizza alone, though, because it's just fine the way it is. The burger is worth coming early for and you really ought to hustle in your family members so you can get one whether they're hungry or not. It comes on a soft bun and seeps juices all over the oniony potato-leek hash browns that sit in a crisp triangle next to it.
Despite the lack of zing in many of the dishes, it's hard to complain too loudly when the food and wine prices are so easy on the budget. Sticker shock is bound to become more and more alarming as we all are reminded that credit cards actually need to be paid down once in a while. The carefree days of a few weeks ago are over, and maybe a walk to a nearby restaurant might be the most sensible way to eat out in this economy. S
Tastebuds American Bistro $$ NS
4019 MacArthur Ave.
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday, from 5 p.m.