I suppose it's a bit odd to relaunch Tunnel Explorer with a restaurant that's aboveground, but even moles have to come to the surface every once in a while. Of course, it helps to have a compelling reason to push our snoots up through the dirt. The news that a new spot had opened up in the food court of 4 Houston Center, dishing up made-to-order pasta, rang out like a surface-dwelling siren song, reverberating through the runs and warrens of our usual environs. Braving the almost inevitable blindness on making the transition, I answered the call.
For starters, Luisa's means it when it says cooked to order. There's a hot line, with cooks behind it. As soon as you place your order, one of them drops your portion of pasta into a gently bubbling pasta cooker crowded with cylindrical strainers. Another tosses bacon lardons, Italian sausage or any of a host of other fresh ingredients into a ripping-hot skillet, flipping and turning them as the flames dance below. Once your protein/veggies are browned/crisped/wilted, a ladleful of your chosen sauce follows. When your pasta is done a few minutes later, it goes straight into the pan, the cook tossing the pasta to marry it with the sauce. It's kind of remarkable to see actual cooking happening right in front of your eyes at a quick-service lunch spot serving a captive audience of office workers.
Of course, dinner and a show isn't quite the same if only one of the performances delivers, and here Luisa's falters just a bit. I opted for "Luisa's Meat Craver's Bucatini," one of a handful of set menu items (you can also build your own bowl from a list of pasta, sauce and topping options). The Italian sausage was mild but flavorful, with a nice snap and and pleasantly laced fennel. I didn't care for the stubby lengths of bucatini, but that might be more of a nod to the more "appropriately office-attired" components of the customer base, the better to avoid staining someone's dress shirt.
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The pasta itself was a bit thicker-walled than I'd have preferred, but with a nice, gently firm texture. It stood up well even after being packed in a box and lugged back up to my office (a short trip up an escalator, and a few flights by elevator). Looking at the display plate on the counter, which showed the individual pasta shapes pre-cooking, you can see the rough-hewn texture from die-extrusion. Even the samples looked freshly made, reinforcing the fact that Luisa's is doing this daily.
The sauce could have used some more depth and seasoning. I found myself wishing for more meaty richness, more salt and a bit of acid to liven things up. It wasn't cooked-all-day top-tier bolognese, but it was way better than what you'd likely expect from most food court pasta slingers. My biggest gripe ended up being the basil, a few wilted and oxidized leaves thrown on top, devoid of any aromatic intensity. As happy as the rest of the dish made me (and it did), the basil made me sad. That's an easy enough thing to fix, though.
Despite the handful of quibbles, Luisa’s represents a delightful option for downtown lunching. Everything is freshly made, and tastes that way. There’s a nice, homespun quality that makes dining at your desk feel just a little bit less like dining at your desk, and that’s always a plus. A bit more care with that sauce, some fresher herbs, a few tweaks, and Luisa's could go from good to great. I hope it does. Now you'll have to excuse me, the sunlight is starting to singe my delicate skin. I'm headed back underground to see what else I can dig up.