June 5, 2016
For as competitive as the food scene is, it seems only appropriate that an establishment would take proper measures in selecting an adequate name, one that stands out and represents its food as well as its level of service. With a name like Picnik, one might expect grab-and-go, perhaps even simple fare that is nostalgic if not comforting. Considering the heightened interest in farm-to-table sourcing at restaurants in cities such as Austin, one might even go as far to assume that carefully curated, fresh ingredients would also come into play here; especially if prices hover around $10 per dish.
The South Congress location of Austin's paleo friendly food truck, Picnik, only partially succeeded in delivering on the aforementioned themes that its name suggests. Butter coffee, as well as a 100% gluten free and paleo friendly menu are the offerings most identifiable at Picnik, yet the emphasis on food seemed to be severely lacking. Ultimately, it appeared as if the establishment might be at a conceptual cross roads.
Admittedly, my trip was the first time in recent memory that I can recall feeling ashamed of what transpired at a restaurant. Had I not sought out Picnik for a review, there is little doubt that I would have slid my plastic container of food back across the counter and asked for a refund or at least an exchange in product.
It's worth mentioning that Picnik proclaims their butter coffee as being famous, which I'm sure is an experience worthy of changing perspective on coffee for the better, but on this visit I elected to steer away from the $6 (and up) cup and devote my time to eating. The Carnitas Tacos ($10.75) seemed to be a fun paleo rendition of the classic dish, primarily for its usage of Siete's Almond Flour tortillas and local pastured pork. After receiving a cold plastic to-go box containing two feeble tortillas, however, I decided to remain nearby to see what sort of guest interactions I might encounter, as if perhaps my portion and exchange was an anomaly. No dice. For what was some time, I sat and thought about what just happened, meanwhile casually separating and then rearranging my tacos as I thought they ought to have been presented (the drawings reflect the initial deliverance). The portions of meat on both tacos wound up hardly stretching the length of the tortilla, while the advertised pickled onions were scarce to say the least. I did find a couple leafs of cilantro, though. Before long, the tacos warmed to the sun, yet I was stumped over why an $11 dish should require both manicuring and reheating in the first place.
Upon picking up the first taco, I found it incredibly difficult to do so without it crumbling between my fingers. Sure, the consistency of these particular tortillas (Siete's Almond Flour) can be tricky, especially if heated to too high of a temperature and then cooled. I have had them crumble on me at home before. Such an occurrence, however, seems inexcusable considering the circumstances at hand. If a location decides to use a certain ingredient, it should have a firm grasp of how to properly use and deliver that item in a way that maximizes the experience for the customer. Furthermore, if the product is susceptible to fault, why use it? There are alternatives, such as Siete's Cassava and Coconut tortillas, that surely would have sufficed.
Once I managed to break the taco into four squares, which ultimately became finger food, the outcome of flavor was pleasant and surprising. A richness from the pork combined with the nuttiness from the tortilla to create a creamy, almost decadent experience. Hints of lime and citrus also tied well with the avocado puree to ensure a variety of flavors one might anticipate from 'true' carnitas tacos. Enduring this constant struggle to keep just a single taco together, however, only dampened the minor victories that this dish was achieving. Furthermore, my search for the pickled onions yielded only one limp strand on each taco, neither of which announced themselves in any distinguishable way.
The whole experience, in the end, provided some needed reflection. As I sat, staring at my plastic box of cold, lazily assembled tacos, two questions ultimately surfaced: who deemed this portion as respectable, and when were these tacos prepared? Initially I felt like I had been hustled. Yet, after I was through eating, I wasn't expecting a noble answer or compensation for being slighted. After all, my patronage had contributed to what was happening, not only at Picnik, but seemingly all around the city, and perhaps in similarly suited culinary boom towns.
This experience ultimately put to question the relationship between the patron and the establishment, specifically regarding those which boast the designation of 'farm-to-table' as a selling point. At what point does the standard for this fresh, innovative fare succumb to its demand and ultimately suffer to mediocrity? How much cushion should be afforded, after all, to these establishments when they pump out sub-par products? Ultimately, where is the pride for the 'locally sourced' products of use, and the local patrons themselves?
Perhaps there's no true answer or justification for what seems to be occurring around us. It surely is not the first time that I, and likely others, have felt slighted from their experience at a similarly regarded establishment. The siege of 'locally sourced' 'farm fresh' fare is upon us, but does that leave us to simply comply if we wish to keep the trend alive? Sure, one patron boycotting an establishment means little to the grand picture, but we deserve to reexamine our dining experiences and hold establishments to a higher standard when we are paying good money for it.
Ate: Carnitas Tacos
1700 South Lamar Blvd, Austin, TX 78704
Rating: 1 Pickled Onion