It begins with trash-can nachos.
A server appears beside our table at Guy Fieri's Tequila Cocina, which opened on Halloween, part of the Hub on Causeway complex adjacent to North Station. He is carrying a metal can, which he upends over a plate. A tower of nachos reveals itself, sand castle-like. Then the stacked cylinder of chips, beans, and "SMC" slowly slumps to one side and collapses.
It is tempting to turn this into some kind of metaphor, but honestly, it's just nachos. There's not a lot of subtext when it comes to Guy Fieri, the exuberant Food Network star known for his bleached hair, loud shirts, and shows such as "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." (There are, however, a lot of catchphrases and exclamations and superlatives: SMC is "super melty cheese" in Fieri speak.)
What can be said about the trash-can nachos is that everyone wants to eat them. There is a gooey stack on each table, and our group text leading up to dinner is variations on a theme of “How much longer until it’s trash-can nachos o’clock?” I’m at Tequila Cocina for an early look, to see what the place is about, to understand the excitement. People are generally pleased to be invited out to dinner, but an invitation to Fieri’s first Boston restaurant yields some next-level glee. There is real joy at the prospect of this place — the SMC and the crispy cheeseburger tacos, the abundant tequila, the whole Fieri brand and its heart-on-a-sleeve, all-in aesthetic. I’m starting to believe that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who want to eat at Fieri’s restaurants, and those who pretend that they don’t.
So where is the Mayor of Flavortown in all of this? Where is the walking-dad-joke, Big Triple D Energy? If Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina has a flaw that can be called out so soon after opening, it is that it doesn’t have enough Guy Fieri going on. The restaurant is a partnership with Big Night Entertainment Group, which is behind Empire, Mystique at Encore Boston, Red Lantern, Scorpion Bar, and more. It is also part of Big Night Live, a 43,000-square-foot venue that hosts live music and private events. The executive chef is Rachel Klein, whose background is in independent fine dining (Om, Liquid Art House) and hotels (Aura, Asana). When I enter Tequila Cocina, I want to see something like a cardboard cutout of Fieri I can pose with beneath a cherry-red convertible sticking out of the wall as if it crashed there. Instead, there’s a large-scale work by a Thai street artist. It’s . . . cool? I am definitely not here to be cool. With its Peter Niemitz-designed interior (Day of the Dead-inspired murals, airy rattan light fixtures, a glowing amber tequila wall with library ladders) and a menu that would fit in at any upscale bowdlerized Mexican restaurant in town, this feels as much like Scorpion Bar Jr. as Guy’s Place.
(There is a soundtrack of straight Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane's Addiction, though. If you want to know what a restaurant really is, and who it's aimed at, listen to the soundtrack.)
The menu opens with an array of salsas and guacamoles: tomatillo avocado, pineapple serrano; shrimp and corn, chorizo. The traditional guacamole, with onion, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime, is the best thing on the table all night. It’s well made, bright and fresh, just the right amount of chunky. We scoop it up with tortilla chips, sprinkled lightly with Dorito-reminiscent orange dust. The seasoning is like a sign, a message whispered in the breeze: “Guy was here.”
Aguachile, a Mexican ceviche, features shrimp and scallops with bits of orange and cucumbers, celery leaf and cilantro, and the slivers of radish that come with many dishes here. There’s no chile heat in this aguachile, which is too sweet and not enough sour. That’s also the problem with my slightly-colder-than-room-temperature $16 Mezquiltini. It’s made with a tequila-mezcal blend created by rocker Sammy Hagar; he and Fieri teamed to launch Santo Tequila Blanco, one of the 100-plus tequila varieties available here.
There are tacos, one per order, nothing too crazy: al pastor, carne asada, fish. A barbacoa cauliflower version, corn tortilla topped with spice-rubbed roasted cauliflower and zucchini, gives vegetarians something to enjoy. The more Fieri-ish take is filed under “bocaditos,” or small plates: Crispy cheeseburger tacos are two-bite crunchy shells filled with ground beef, SMC, Donkey Sauce, pickle pico de gallo, and cheddar. They taste almost exactly like Big Macs. They are the only thing on the menu to feature the mayo-esque Donkey Sauce, a Fieri signature.
The portion sizes here are average, the spicing subdued. Even a margarita made with ghost-pepper tequila offers the gentlest glow. Beantown meets Flavortown at Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina, and this early in the match, the latter is struggling. In search of a big bang, we order the Prime Time Tomahawk Steak, 32 ounces of dry-aged meat on the bone, topped with green onions and a very theoretical roasted habanero butter. It may not be the best steak we’ll ever have, as the server suggests, but it does arrive a rosy medium-rare.
For dessert, let's just say the churros are raw inside and leave it at that.
I’m not mad about the food, which naturally still needs work. Tequila Cocina has been open for approximately 30 seconds. I am sad about it, though, a little. Fieri’s restaurants have been banged around in the press. A place like this is almost asking to be accused of cultural appropriation, in a think piece accompanied by a list of excellent, locally operated restaurants run by actual Mexicans that readers should frequent instead. But if you can’t own it, don’t do it. The fact that so many people adore Fieri’s shtick — will in fact come here just for that — feels somewhat lost in the Donkey Sauce.
Too much, not enough: Maybe Guy Fieri just can’t win. He was a frequent target for Anthony Bourdain, but although their styles were worlds apart, their goals were not. Their shows bring exposure to small, deserving businesses that otherwise wouldn’t find themselves in the limelight. Fieri founded a charity called Cooking With Kids, fed California communities affected by wildfires, officiated a wedding for 101 same-sex couples in Miami just after Florida repealed its same-sex marriage ban. On the other hand, he is guilty of wearing sunglasses on the back of his head and saying “off the hook” a lot. Crimes!
I watch our server pull the tin from the nachos. It’s more of a coffee can than a trash can, really. He is matter-of-fact, understated. I want to ask him how many pieces of flair he is wearing. I want him to play the whole thing up, with cheesy flourishes and patter, and a dramatic pause so everyone at the table can hit “record.” But it’s over before we realize it’s begun.
Toward the end of the meal, I hear a man on the other side of the dining room yell: “I’m ready to go to Flavortown!” I hope the night took him there.
110 Causeway St., Boston, 617-896-5222, www.guyscocina.com