It would be hard to critique a sushi restaurant if you didn't like fish. Just like it would be hard to review a steak house if you were a vegetarian. Of course, you could wax lyrical about the environs—the flat-screen TVs, the attractive dining room and the clever signage. You could celebrate the cheery service, the environmentally sustainable plasticware, the space-age iced tea dispenser and the fresh accompaniments to the main dishes. But any praise will necessarily ring a little hollow if you fundamentally reject the premise of the underlying food.
That's the predicament I found myself in as I embarked on a review of Nuvo Burrito, the gleaming burrito bar at Five Points in East Nashville.
I just don't like burritos—especially the ones stuffed with rice and beans. Think about it: rice and beans, more often than not, are a redundant side dish, splatted alongside something else to make the plate look more balanced. Look around any Tex-Mex or Mexican eatery and you'll see a significant portion of diners actually ignoring the beans and rice altogether—pushing them to the perimeter like a big beige spoonful of metaphorical curly parsley.
And yet there's a whole school of grab-it-and-growl cuisine based on encasing this edible albatross in a dry swatch of tortilla. The very mention of a burrito conjures that spongy stub at the end of the handheld packet, where the excess tortilla gets folded into a six-ply umbilicus of origami that inevitably languishes on the plate or in the wrapper.
It is with that prejudice that I approached Nuvo Burrito, which launched this summer in the Walnut Exchange building behind Marché. And while the roster of beans-and-rice-stuffed burritos didn't dispel my dislike of the overall tortilla-swaddled genus—and while I still found myself excavating the starchy tubes to mine the good stuff—I liked the place a lot.
Owners Sean Perry, Tom Justice, Andy Knight and Shane Yocom have pooled their complementary talents in hotel marketing and restaurant operations to create a polished, friendly shop with a concise and inventive array of fresh food. Take one step inside the airy store and it's clear the owners have thought about the enterprise from a lot of angles. The signage is professional and polished, with playful menu item names, consistent contemporary graphic designs, and flat-screen TVs broadcasting the manageable repertoire, as well as some homespun footage of the Nuvo team engaging in a wet burrito contest.
With chic stained concrete floors, bio-compostable flatware, sleek blond wood finishes and jewel-toned walls and seat coverings, Nuvo Burrito is a well-packaged, casual spot to fritter a way a lunch hour—especially if you like burritos. (Hint: If the TVs are pumped up too loud for your taste, don't hesitate to ask a server to turn them down. In our experience, the staff was very accommodating and the other diners seemed grateful.)
So far, the top selling items are the Lone Star and the Ozark, fairly straightforward versions of standard-issue Tex-Mex burritos with beef and chicken, respectively, wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas with beans, rice, peppers, lettuce, onion and tomato or salsa. While these South-of-the-border staples stood out for their healthy-minded fillings (such as black beans and brown rice), what really seduced us about Nuvo Burrito were the more adventurous burritos, such as sweet potatoes with dried cherries, barbecue chicken with coleslaw, and shrimp with cilantro pesto and caramelized Vidalia onions.
The Gulf Coaster, loaded with plump tender shrimp, black beans, brown rice, cilantro pesto, wilted spinach, caramelized onions and bacon, combined a flavorful batch of ingredients—salty and sweet, cool and warm—into a happy union of surf and turf. Similarly, the Heart of Dixie layered warm mashed sweet potato with caramelized Vidalia onion, coleslaw, sweet corn relish, black beans, Monterey Jack cheese and bacon, creating a decadent and unexpected blend of textures and temperatures. (This formula was more interesting than Yankees in Georgia's sweet potato-cherry pairing, though dried cherries might have added an interesting textural dimension to the Heart of Dixie.)
The Plymouth—stuffed with ground turkey, dried cranberries, black beans, spinach, brown rice, cheddar and a subtle sweet poppyseed dressing—vaguely recalled sandwiches made with Thanksgiving leftovers that turn out even better than the first-run turkey meal. The Berkeley—artichoke hearts tangled in black beans, brown rice and cheese, with bright accents of cumin-corn relish and cilantro pesto—made for a hearty vegetarian offering that far surpassed the usual blandness of meatless meals.
But these creative and appealing mash-ups came with one caveat. (Have I mentioned that I don't like burritos?)
Almost without exception, the fresh medleys of vegetables, meats and bright condiments were smothered inside heavy whole-wheat straitjackets. For every bready tube we cored of its flavorful fillings, we chucked about a square foot of spent tortilla at the self-busing station.
A better approach, therefore, is to stick with the second column on the menu, labeled "Ques-ideas." A better idea, indeed, is the use of Lavash flatbread in lieu of tortillas to make a selection of sandwiches with all the personality of the Nuvo burritos minus the monotonous bulk.
The 90210—chicken, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, goat cheese, roasted red pepper and cilantro—delivered a well-balanced layering of bread, meat and cheese, lightly heated and drizzled with olive oil for a rustic result that had more in common with a panino than with a quesadilla. Over the River and Thru the Hood—a BLT-based holdover from the East Nashville Tomato Festival—also benefited from the lighter Lavash treatment.
In fact, we would have preferred virtually any of the burritos prepared instead as a ques-idea. That preparation would be a simple enough shift, though 86-ing the burritos would beg a question about the restaurant name.
In the end, it's not the "burrito" part of Nuvo Burrito that succeeds. It's the "Nuvo" part, and it's likely that the same creative energy behind the inventive combinations, biodegradable accessories, humorous marketing messages and homemade key lime bar made from "a closely guarded Internet secret" will solve the problem of the entrée's overbearing outerwear.
Nuvo Burrito is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The restaurant now serves margaritas, beer and wine.
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