350 First Avenue
New York, NY 10010
(212) 358-7800

The Rents suggested dinner out to Bro and I. And not being one to normally turn down a free meal, we capitulated and headed to Manhattan to test out a new restaurant in the old 'hood.

Growing up in the lower east 20s meant basically living in a culinary desert. The closest thing to a restaurant in the area that wasn't a pizza place was the Pastrami Factory and this large-but-God-awful Chinese place, the name of which I won't mention, that somehow survived for over twenty years despite never having more than three of it's forty tables full at any given time. It's gone now, replaced by a Washington Mutual bank. Eating anywhere else meant going for a walk.

Vamos is owned by the same people who own Petite Abeille, the Belgian-restaurant micro-chain that has a handful of locations in Manhattan. A few years ago Petite Abeille opened a restaurant on the corner of 20th Street and First Avenue and immediately ended the draught of good dining in the Stuy-Town/Peter Cooper area. It's routinely packed (and has been since day-one), has very good food, a great atmosphere, and I hope to write it up sometime in the future. Regretfully, I will be unable to do so for its brother, Vamos.

I have found that there are two types of Mexican places: Trendy Mexican, like Rosa Mexicano and Dos Caminos, where they serve yuppies like me trendy drinks at trendy prices in a trendy atmosphere. Their primary raison-d'etre is so guys in dress shirts can order big fruity drinks without looking fruity. Their cuisine is Mexican-ish. New takes on old classics, served artistically on your plate. You don't get much, but you sure pay like you do.

The other type is Regular Mexican. Regular Mexican typically sets the expectational bar pretty low. Nobody really expects much from regular Mexican food. Almost everybody likes it, but in my experience the food is just one part of the overall experience. Grab some friends, order some pitchers of beer or margaritas, get a plate of nachos the size of Mount Everest, and have fun. Vamos tries to blur the line a little, but basically, it's regular Mexican. And so when the bar is already low, and it hasn't been met... uh... well, it's kinda makes me sad.

But before I get to the food, I want to quickly mention the atmosphere. Vamos is a cantina, complete with Tex-Mex artwork and designs along the walls evoking the feeling of something that should be on an unpaved street in Tijuana. The bar is Vamos' center, which you immediately notice just from walking past it on the street. It's the first thing you see after the handful of tables at the window. All the rest of the restaurant's seating is behind the bar. And it's pretty dark back there. The tables are huge - almost picnic table sized. You practically want to yell at the people you're eating with just to make sure they can hear you. I don't know that this is really a complaint. It's conceivable that the reason I didn't much like the tables might have been that I was eating with The Rents, and there's something about having dinner in a bar atmosphere yelling across the table that just doesn't translate well when with people in that demographic.

The food wasn't awful, but it was disappointing. Vamos was practically empty, but it still took very long for the food to come (over 45 minutes). When it did, it all came at the same time. Appetizers and entrees and drinks. Just jumping ahead, we skipped dessert. And while the waitress was very nice, the rest of the staff spoke zero English. I'm not about to alert Lou Dobbs, but this can be (and was) a problem when they bring you another table's dishes and you're trying to explain that it isn't yours.

I had met someone for a late lunch and wasn't starving come dinner, so I just ordered an entree. A grilled shrimp dish, Camarones Veracruz. The shrimp were a decent size, but there were just five of them and they arrived cold on the outside and lukewarm on the inside. Everything else on the plate was rice. The rice was hot. Cold shrimp on a huge cube of hot rice. If I had much of an appetite, I'd have been pissed off.

Bro ordered the Peruvian Ceviche, a citrusy fish dish with vegetables, which he said was very good. He followed it up with the Pollo Aroztizado, an orange-glazed roast chicken that came with grilled corn on the cob (Elotes Callajeros). And he liked that a lot, too. Methinks I should have ordered what he did. Nonetheless, by the time he got to eat the chicken, time had taken its toll on the temperature, so Bro began alternating between eating between appetizer and entree. Fish-chicken-fish-chicken.

The Rents tried the Sopa de Tortilla, a spicy tomato soup, Alambre Chimichurri, a steak kabob grilled with vegetables, and the Ensalada Linda, a salad with shrimp, corn, avocado, tomato and squash. I didn't have any of the soup, but they liked it and suggested that if there's a next time, I give it a go. Shrink, it should be noted, does not like spicy things and has no spice tolerance of any kind (perhaps choosing a Mexican restaurant was not the thing for her to do) and hence felt that the steak, which was given a chili rub, was too spicy. I disagreed, but I love spicy food. I tried the steak and should have liked it, but like my shrimp, it was cold. Unlike my shrimp, it was also pretty tough. The salad was tasty and supposed to be cold, but DudeMan wished that for what he paid, he got more shrimp.

The thing about Vamos is that it's usually always packed. But I'm guessing not for the food. It's the kind of place I'd definitely go back to with friends for drinks and relatively inexpensive chow. But I'll bring a Zone bar to stave off the hunger pangs and I'll stick to more easily made food like the tacos.

The total bill for the four of us, including tax and tip, was $120.

UPDATE: 7/28/08:
So I just grabbed a beer and mojito with Dudeman here today and Vamos is much more impressive. I think it's the outdoor seating that they've added. So I'll give Vamos this: go here for drinks.

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