Fish, (Non) Finger Food, and a First Look at Concepción

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I don't know how many times, as a parent, I've found myself saying "Don't eat (X) with your fingers!" Insert pretty much whatever you want into that equation; the algebra of child dining etiquette has no set boundary condition. (Misapplied, mixed math metaphors for the win.) At any rate, I have at various times substituted each of the following for (X): spaghetti; salad; omelet; cake; queso; ice cream; soup. Mind you, each of these conditions has occurred within the last year. My kids are eight and six. Yes, this is pertinent.

I can't imagine not having previously mentioned that my family is A) a bunch of ridiculously late risers and B) somewhat worryingly obsessed with breakfast foods. To state the obvious, brunch is our game. For a while, Xuco Xicana stood as one of our go-to brunch spots. The way in which Chef Jonathan Jones managed to combine ridiculously comforting, approachable food with always exciting flavors and preparations made it perfect for a family split down the middle between finicky starch-and-dairy lovers and enthusiastic omnivores. We've missed that place.

As the short hand approached the two last Sunday, talk turned to food, and I tossed Concepción out into the ether, hoping that it would pique my wife's interest, turning the wheel away from Le Peep, toward which the kids seemed to be steering the ship. "Does it have the same food as XX?" inquired my wife. I lied. Sort of. I mean, from what I'd heard, I had a reasonable assumption that there would be some analogues. Whatever. It got us there.

The dining room at the former Ocean's space felt a bit reserved for a couple of hungry kids, so we made our way to the patio. I'm not entirely certain why anyone would choose otherwise, here. The patio's old, weather-worn deck meanders through a spacious yard, with tangled stands of plants and several levels separating diners in rough, comfortable sections. It feels like a refuge.

We placed our drink orders; a daiquiri whose light rum was too wan to effectively balance out its bracing acidity, and a lovely "Florjito," its lush sweetness pulled back expertly by tart hibiscus and zippy mint, thinned out just enough by its dose of soda water to make it a perfect summer sipper. We mused over the menu for some minutes, vexed by the forced decision to over-order or feel we'd missed out, then settled somewhere in the middle. It's a particularly pleasant pain to be wracked with indecision because everything on a menu sounds so enticing.

My wife is much smarter than I am, and typically serves as the voice of reason in our ordering process. I tend to think optimistically, with an internal process that assumes too much of my kids. She's constantly reminding me that, while the older one will likely be down with trying a bite of everything, there's pretty much no way the younger one is going to eat goat. That's how we wound up ordering an omelet, easily the least exciting item on the menu. I'll call it a step in the right direction, though, as "two eggs, over-medium, and a side of rice" is a frequent ticket for my family, be it in a Tex-Mex dive or a trattoria. This is where that finger-food algebra comes in.

We received our omelet sans utensils. That happens. No big deal. We hadn't noticed either, fixated on our drinks and conversation. The bar, by the way, will pour any one of their variety of lovely juices for your kids. Just ask. Mine got orange and mango. We waited. We asked after utensils. We waited some more. It was probably about five minutes, still a fairly long time, from when our food arrived until we were provided something with which to eat it, but it felt like an eternity.

In DEFCON Dining, any unplanned situation which feels like an eternity can be a sign of impending melt-down. "I'm huuuungry" often precedes whining, sliding from chairs, and whisper-yelling in my family. A wait of this nature can spoil a whole meal when you're eating with kids. Remember, for them, five minutes is approximately five bajillion hours, given the relativity of time perception at their age. It's Einsteinian physics. Look it up.

For my kids, this didn't present a problem. It did, however, prompt me to say, "Don't eat pico de gallo with your fingers!" Utensils arrived soon enough, along with the rest of our food, though one daughter didn't see the point in switching mid-stream. The finger-eating, and admonishments, followed right on through to the sticky torrejas.

Those torrejas, deftly handled with crunchy edges and moist but un-soggy interiors, scored big points with the kids and parents alike. They recalled elements of both the pancakes and french toast at XX, but were both more elegant and more satisfying. They were rich and eggy, but kept light by the crunchy-edged bread and granola-like nut clusters, with bright kicks of blood orange and a light floral bouquet from the orange-tinged syrup. That syrup struck a cord with me, as it only provided a mild sweetness, allowing the savory and tart components of the dish to shine just as brightly. I feel that many breakfast breads overwhelm with sweetness, to a fault. This is not one of them.

I don't think I could have been to Concepción without getting ceviche. Those dishes were, without fail, the best thing I ate that day, every day I went to XX. I actually have mixed feelings about the two we had this time around, finding both of them to be of a slightly different breed and lacking, somewhat, in the balanced yet madcap array of flavors I look for in JJ's fish plates.

The day's 3rd Coast Ceviche paired its fish (Scarlet Grouper or possibly Almaco Jack) with radish rounds, orange segments, both standard and blood, mint, and red onion slivers in a hibiscus leche de tigre. The fish was firm-fleshed but yielding, with a nicely insistent flavor just this side of fishy. It was more assertive than most ceviche fish I've encountered, and I count that as a good thing.

Thickened slightly with xanthan gum, the leche de tigre clung to the fish with a voluptuous insistence that was somewhat belied by the unexpectedly reserved flavor. It was sharp, in its way, but seemed more focused on mirroring the lushness of the fish. It was a stately, luxe, and restrained ceviche, and I found myself torn between loving that, and wanting just a bit more acid or a sting of chile to jump it up. I think the fact that I swiped up the leche with my knife, admiring the way it clung meniscus-like to the edge, speaks to its final effect. Also in its corner, the fact that my older daughter agreed to her first taste of ceviche, and asked for a second.

The vegan ceviche was similarly galvanizing for me. I loved the roasty, pointedly savory nature of its corn and manzano chile leche, buttery and rich. The pickled mushrooms added a meaty chew and a nicely balanced acidic tug, and the slightly smoky grilled watermelon lightened the overall effect, in the best possible way. My one complaint was the pineapple, its insistent sweetness overbalancing the other elements on the plate. Cut that by half, both in piece and portion size, and I'd be pleased as punch.

The one true disappointment of the day came as quite a surprise. To a one, we all agreed that we needed to have the Pozole Ramen. What rational person, assuming they'd experienced both, separately and in good form, could pass up funky, chile and citrus spiked pork broth, chewy-slippery noodles, and a liquid-gold-centered egg? None at our table, though I'm willing to acknowledge questions regarding the rationality of six-year-olds.

It came to the table looking delicious, its wisps of dried fish dancing from convection currents of pork and chile. My wife broke the egg (an almost effortless effort) and stirred it in, jolted the whole thing with a squeeze of lime, and took a bite. We were all expecting fireworks. We got a fizzle.

Aside from the nicely porky flavor, and the admittedly nice twist of sea-sharp bonito, the broth was shockingly devoid of character. What I prize in a good pozole is the depth and nuance of its broth. Porky funk shoulders up against dusky chile; a pantheon of musky, dried herbs rides shotgun; cilantro and lime juice add a cracklingly frenetic energy to the whole affair. It's like the soupy version of hyper-caffeination, running from sweet and earthy to tart to fiery, and seemingly all the shades in between. That's what XX's pozole was, and that's what I was hoping for, here. If nothing else, it needed a good dose of salt.

The worst of it, though, was the noodles. They were overcooked, almost to the point of mushiness. No spring, no bite, they yielded to the vaguest pressure, deflating as easily as my hopes. I think, perhaps, it's mostly a case of exaggerated expectations. The pozole at XX was so good, rivaled in my experience only by a bowlful at Barrio Cafe in Phoenix, that few can live up to it. Had this been a pre-XX pozole experience, my expectations and perceptions may have been more forgiving. Take that as a backhanded compliment, JJ. I wanted, no, I expected this to be excellent. I think it can and will be, and I will definitely be checking.

Despite a few slight service hiccups and that bowl of broken dreams, brunch was delightful. The growing trend of course-less dining - each dish brought to the table as it is at its prime, whenever in the course of the meal that may be - is in full effect here, and we find it a format particularly conducive to DEFCON Dining. There's an element of surprise, regularly changing scenery. The kids are caught off guard, kept on their toes, engaged in the process. That makes them much less likely to require other means of entertainment (thrown napkins, table-tag, simple whining), and much more likely to allow us to enjoy our meals, and their company. That's DEFCON Five Dining, for sure.

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