January 18, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
Playa Betty's: What a Betty You Are!
I’ve ordered twenty tacos so each of our foursome can taste half of each taco on the menu.
At one time, the Upper West Side was known for its feisty intellectuals, bearded academics, and theater folk. Now, it seems we’re a haven for fertile millennials and would-be hot surfer chicks. Certainly, it looks that way from my corner table at Playa Betty's just last Friday.
“There sure are a lot of women here on a Saturday night,” our sole male companion observes.
The stroller crowd has filled up on not-very-Mexican tacos and gone home, making way for clusters of young women sipping from a choice of six $12 “House Margaritas” and sharing guacamole at the bar. Those backless bar stools should provoke faster turnover. Actually, there are decisions to be made -- the naked guac comes with a tray of more and less suitable mixins.
Passersby are drawn by intimations of a sunny California beach shack.
How desperately do we crave a little beach play on Amsterdam? On opening day, there was already a line outside what used to be Citrus, both delighting and alarming Tom Wilson, who put together this playpen with Gene Ashe in the style of their Reunion Surf Bar (which sits under Simon Oren’s Marseille).
No way can I resist “Tot” Chos -- tater tots decked out in nacho excess.
I spy tables of septuagenarian Bettys with their grandkids the first night I arrive with friends. Sure, it is ferociously noisy, but we can lean in and chat. And I swoon over the “Tot” Chos -- tater tots with classic nacho toppings -- guacamole, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, and veg or beef chili. Beef is my choice.
“Eat Tacos” in the neon command above the open kitchen.
I’m proud to be a Ted Cruz New Yorker: pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-let-live. I favor amnesty for all kitchen workers. If I see you coming out of the subway holding a map upside down, I’ll definitely butt in, speaking French perhaps, trying to help. As a certified New Yorker, I get Playa Betty's right away. “California-style beach food,” the placemat menu proclaims. It’s not supposed to be Mexican. It’s anything goes.
The $9 queso (“Austin Style Melted Cheese Dip”) is a little thin, but tasty enough with $3 chorizo.
Queso is billed as “Austin style melted cheese dip.” Austin is not exactly a beach town, and the goop is a little thin. I order our queso with chorizo, and scoop it up with chips anyway. I’m curious about “Don’t You Die On Me Chico”– chicharrones with butter, bacon, and housemade yellow cheese powder – but not curious enough to risk it.
“Southern Girl” with fried chicken, shredded lettuce, poblanos, and jalapeño crema is our favorite.
Maybe the soft tortillas come one per taco, not doubled as we’re used to, and they’re no rival to Cosme’s show-off discs, but I’m impressed by the non-traditional stuffings. Winners at our table are tangy “Southern Girl” with nubbins of fried chicken, shredded lettuce, and poblano chilies in jalapeño crema, and the spirited “Tac-o-Fella,” starring a crusty fried oyster with wilted spinach, chorizo and a hot sauce aioli.
Whole marinated $20 Beachfire chicken comes with grilled scallions, corn tortillas, and Mexican corn.
The luscious whole, butterflied, marinated chicken served on a foil-lined metal tray with grilled scallions, a bundle of corn tortillas, and Mexican grilled corn has me thinking I might send a pickup service to buy it for me one Sunday night when I usually sloth-out at home. That first visit, the white meat is dry but the thigh and a leg are juicy enough.
Some of these proposed guacamole mixins are silly. Still, a generous gesture, like California itself.
The sole wipeout is the $12 dharma bowl. I can only blame myself. The diner chooses a grain, a green and a protein. Not even Betty’s secret sauce can save the boring toss of quinoa, mixed greens and Veracruz fish I order. “Maybe you should have picked kale and grilled steak,” one of my companions suggests.
Trays of multiple tacos line our table – ten and ten – half of each for each of us.
A week later, even in the winter freeze, Amsterdam looks permanently sunnier. I’m back with three friends, determined to taste all 10 tacos. I order 20 tacos so we can each taste a generous half. They arrive four or five at a time on two matching trays.
Don has his Betty’s Margarita straight up. Mine, on the rocks, is especially well made tonight.
We start with the five traditional – tempura battered Baja fish with cabbage and avocado slaw, carne asada (skirt steak), stewed Veracruz fish with fried jalapeño, spit-roasted pork al pastor with grilled pineapple purée, and Mexican Coke-dosed short rib with pickled red onion. Most are tasty bites. The skirt steak is too dry.
Fluke ceviche, “cooked” in lime with avocado, is our palate cleanser between taco waves.
We divide fluke ceviche on a puffed tortilla tostada as a palate cleanser between taco waves, move on to jerk chicken with collard greens, tempura battered avocado with black beans, a coy pimento cheese fritter with braised collards and fried green tomato relish. And of course, my favorites, “Southern Girl” with fried chicken and “Tac-o-Fella.”
Sure, corn in Mexican dress is better when it’s fresh, but I’ll take it second best anyway.
Did I always know what I was eating? I’ll be honest. Occasionally I got lost in the adventure. Amazingly, everyone has an appetite for soggy grilled corn-on-the-cob oozing chili aioli, grated cotija cheese, and Mexican crema. Corn in this dress can be thrilling when it’s fresh from the fields, but it’s sheer junk out of season, left to the ravages of the steam table. And yet, I confess, I’m gobbling it anyway, as if any old corn confirms it’s summer.
Churro ice cream “sammie” is worth saving room for. No point of thinking calories tonight.
Alas, tonight even the dark meat of the chicken is overcooked. And my pals are too stuffed to even consider the house’s lone dessert option – the churro ice cream “sammie,” served with melted chocolate dip.
Playa partner Tom Wilson may be from Massachusetts, but he delivers a playa surfing vibe.
The burly floorwalker in the baby blue ski hat comes by to introduce himself. He’s surfer dude Tom Wilson of the duo that persuaded eats magnate Simon Oren to add this lease to his eclectic collection. The surfboards on the walls were made by a legendary master, Wilson points out. The bar is white ash from Massachusetts where he grew up. And the wood paneling on the walls is reclaimed pine from a mill Wilson worked at as a teenager.
The painted chairs each have a different floral print. Oh, you Betty!
The neighborhood’s instant ardor has inspired the Playa team to mull creating a wine bar or another Reunion Surf-like venture in the vast cellar below. “With an entrance on 75th Street, it won’t change the vibe,” Wilson promises.
320 Amsterdam Avenue on the NW corner of 75th Street. 212 712 0777. Lunch 11:30 am till 3:30 pm. Dinner 5 pm to midnight. Bar open Sunday through Wednesday till midnight, Thursday through Saturday till 2 am.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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