Fast Fish: Buena Onda Reviewed

Buena Onda, Jose Garces’s new fast-casual taco concept, is an experiment we’re lucky to be a part of.

Fish Tacos | Photo by Jason Varney

Fish Tacos at Buena Onda | Photo by Jason Varney

Strange things are afoot in Fast Food Nation. McDonald’s, whose 2013 Mighty Wings promotion left the chain sitting on 10 million pounds of unsold chicken, is so deep in a corporate identity crisis that it just gave the Hamburglar a makeover as a suburbanite hipster. Meanwhile, Shake Shack’s stock hit a P/E ratio nearly 10 times higher than Facebook’s. And now Jose Garces is leaping into the quick-serve sweepstakes with a value proposition of his own: $3.50 fish tacos, and free beer while you wait.

From its breezy beach-bum decor to its branded bottled water, Buena Onda feels exactly how Garces describes it: a “prototype” designed with an eye toward replication. But for my three-bucks-and-change, that’s a good thing—one of those times we can feel fortunate that the Iron Chef is doing his experimenting in our backyard.

You can digest the menu in no more time than it takes to sip a couple complimentary ounces of Yards K38 Pale Ale, but I’ll make it even easier: Ignore everything but the tacos.

Whether they were grilled or fried (clad in aerated, vodka-charged rice-flour batter that puffs like featherweight tempura), the mahimahi and thumb-size Pacific shrimp were moist, fresh-flavored center-pieces cradled in made-to-order flour tortillas beneath tufts of pickled cabbage and julienned jicama. And a chilled trio of miniature marlin-salad tacos, tucked into taro chips along with a pickled jalapeño, made for a pleasantly creamy summer refreshment.

Landlubbers picking among chicken, pork, and chili-braised beef (which was the best of that bunch) are rewarded with corn tortillas pressed à la minute, made with freshly ground New Jersey masa when it’s in season. A middling margarita that came my way was a bit on the salty side, but Buena Onda’s tamarind agua fresca is the real deal: every bit as tangy as it is sweet, and just thick enough to suggest the fruit’s sticky chew.

There are also quesadillas—but like quesadillas everywhere, from any run-of-the-mill food truck to the Applebee’s on the corner, they’re ponderous productions of meat and rice clotted up with so much cheese that neither Buena Onda’s roasted poblano strips or the surprisingly (even off-puttingly) sweet onions do much to improve the equation. Get your daily cheese requirement from the nachos instead, whose multicolored cargo of pickled and roasted chilies packs a livelier punch.While Garces’s emphasis on standardization keeps Buena Onda from challenging Philly’s fast-casual flag-bearer, Dizengoff, if Fast Food Nation wants more fish tacos in its future, this is a promising start.
Two Stars – Good
Buena Onda [Foobooz]