Appetizers, or “starters,” as they are currently called, help set the stage for your meal. And they also give guests a chance to be more adventurous.
If you order a $20 entrée and find you don’t like it, it’s a damper on your wallet and your night. But a $7 or $8 appetizer is less risky on your budget, and if you don’t like it, you can move on to the rest of the meal.
Also, because appetizers are often shared around the table, everyone might get just a bite or two. So, chefs can be a little more playful and creative in order to make those few bites memorable.
Mexican restaurants have a challenge: Why order an appetizer with complimentary chips and salsa on the table? Guacamole Fresco is one sure lure.
At Bella’s Fresh Mexican Grill in Farr West, it’s made and served at your table in a molcajete, a very heavy mortar-and-pestle type bowl made of lava rock.
“They call me a ‘guac-tologist,’” joked Terri Strand, a manager at Bella’s and one of the five staffers who knows how to make the guacamole. Owner Joe Cottam is one of them, and Terri and Joe’s mother, Sandy Cottam, is another.
“A lot of people come in because they’ve heard of our guacamole,” said Strand. “People will see me making it at another table, and they want it. They see the ingredients going into it, and they can tailor it to their specific tastes. They may want a lot or a little cilantro or onions.”
Two avocados are mixed with the restaurant’s avocado cilantro salsa, and house-made pico de gallo. A staffer, Maria Limon, makes the avocado cilantro salsa, and the recipe is an in-house secret.
A big squirt of fresh orange juice gives the guacamole a hint of sweet citrus. “It brightens the flavor without being too tart,” said Strand.
One guest told her, “The only thing that’s bad about the molcajete is it’s so hard on my tongue when I lick it.”
Yes, the guacamole is that good.
Veggieballs for all
Fresh-made guacamole is also the top-selling appetizer at Sonora Grill, where it’s also made to order.
The Queso Fundido is another appetizer that offers some tableside dining drama, along with aroma and flavor.
“We bring a hot skillet right out to your table where we saute white onions and chorizo,” said owner Steve Ballard. “Then we add Asadero cheese, Manchego cheese, Oaxaca cheese and salsa, and then stir everything around on the hot skillet as it melts into cheese dip. Queso Fundido is fun, delicious and smells incredible.”
Rovali’s Ristorante on 25th Street is jumping into the vegetarian trend with a Vegetale Palla (or veggieball), an appetizer that can also be substituted in entrees.
“This is a great substitute for our world-famous Mama’s Giant Meatball appetizer,” said Alex Montanez, owner of Rovali’s. “We wanted to reach out to our vegetarian friends with this delicious alternative. I’m a meat lover, but I would switch out Mama’s Giant Meatball for the Vegetale Palla on any dish!”
The original recipe includes lentils, crushed walnuts, carrots, mushrooms and a few secret ingredients.
“I’ve tried Vegetale Palla on whole-wheat spaghetti with streamed broccoli and our veggie sauce, and it was awesome!” Montanez said.
The top-selling appetizer is the House Combo, a sampler with lightly breaded chicken tenders, zucchini medallions, fried cheese ravioli, garlic cheesebread and two dipping sauces.
Eggs with attitude
Fried Asparagus Spears and Deep-Fried Deviled Eggs are appetizers with attitude at ParkStone Wood Kitchen in Farmington.
“It’s just fresh asparagus, with some crispy Parmesan breading, served with ranch dressing,” said manager Amber Eggett.
The Deep-Fried Deviled Eggs are not as popular, “But once we persuade people to try them, they usually get addicted. They’re freakishly delicious.”
A whole boiled egg is cut it in half and the yolk removed. The white part is battered and deep-fried.
“Then we mix in our own seasonings with the yolk, so it’s got a little kick to it. We serve the yolk on top of the egg white halves, and garnish it with a little cilantro. It sounds freaky, but they’re so good.”
Scotch Eggs and Bleu Cheese Chips are signature appetizers at Two-Bit Street Café.
“Scotch eggs are very big in England, and both my husband and I spent some time there,” said owner Penny Allred Dayley.
A hard-boiled egg is encased in sausage, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
“You don’t find them here too often, so people are curious to try them. Everyone who has had one likes them. If they weren’t popular, they would be off the menu.”
The Bleu Cheese Chips start with house-made potato chips — they don’t go in the fryer until the order is placed. They’re topped with a mornay sauce and lots of crumbled blue cheese.
“A lot of people will order our appetizers instead of a meal, “ said Dayley. “Or they will get an appetizer to share with the whole table.”
Wild West Shrimp is the nationwide top favorite at the Longhorn Steakhouse chain. It’s crispy, hand-battered shrimp, with spicy cherry peppers, garlic butter and housemade ranch dressing. But a new starter, Crispy Blue Crab Bites, is being showcased with the chain’s spring “peak season” menu.
“The menus rotate four times per year to showcase the freshest, most relevant flavors of each season,” explained Fernanda Horvath, national spokesperson for Longhorn Steakhouses.
Sweet lump crab, roasted corn and peppers are coated in a light breading, and served with a housemade citrus rémoulade sauce.
At Tona Sushi, the best-selling appetizer is the Garlic Edamame, according to co-owner Tina Yu.
The soybeans are sautéed in the pod, with garlic, soy and sake wine.
“Another one we think is just as tasty is the Charred Brussels Sprout,” said Yu. The Brussels sprouts are flavored with fresh basil, lemon zest, diced chili and sweet soy sauce.
Iggy’s Tin Lid is mammoth game-day grub to share with other fans at Iggy’s Sports Grill. Mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, onion rings and chicken balls are served on a garbage-can lid.
With so many interesting appetizers out there, it’s no wonder that many diners make a “small plates” meal of appetizers to share and sample. But they also make a great start to a memorable meal.