Buena Onda Forgets to Bring the Salt to Philadelphia

Buena Onda Forgets to Bring the Salt to Philadelphia
Abby Chang

The quality of the fish at Jose Garces’ Buena Onda was superb and cooked with the utmost care, but nearly all the food was missing a key ingredient: salt.

As you enter Buena Onda from Callowhill Street, the atmosphere changes from the city air and car horns, to the feel of a Ron Jon Surf Shop while a faux record player plays some Beach Boys. It’s chef Jose Garces newest restaurant in the Garces Group and I’m a tad bit salty to this “good vibes” establishment.

Perhaps chef Garces was a bit ambitious in opening two restaurants within two months of each other in the New Year, but as one restaurant succeeded, the other faltered. As you walk into Buena Onda, the vibes certainly are good and relaxed, and you can notice the service equally relaxed in manner and attire. With a navy blue shirt with the white words, “Buena Onda” printed off on the left side and paired with blue jeans, you realize that chef Garces opened a taco fast-food restaurant, unlike any of his other restaurants. You put in your order and pay at a register, which conveniently features the menu right below the computer, and then the kind lady hands you a number to take to your seat. I truly felt like I was at a restaurant on the beach, and that the only missing item was sand on the floor.

As the food was quickly brought over to the table, the bartender used that same speed and walked away without referencing which taco was what. So instead, I made this dining experience a game for my taste-buds; which fish tasted like the Mahi-Mahi, and is this guacamole I’m eating, or just mashed avocados?

The quality of the fish was superb and cooked with the utmost care, but what happened to the underlying key ingredient: salt? All the fish tacos lacked salt and even the guacamole lacked flavor. For $7.50, I would have expected some garlic, white onions, and perhaps a few cubed tomatoes in the little wooden bowl. Instead, I was presented with a bowl of creamily mashed avocados with shaved Cotija cheese sprinkled on top, and a tasting scavenger hunt for chopped cilantro. The only properly flavored taco I enjoyed were the mini marlin tacos, served on Malanga chip and pickled jalapeños. The spicy and sour flavor combination of the pickled jalapeños was a nice complement to the coldness of the marlin, and the crunch of the malanga chip was also a nice texture change to the softness of the fish.

At $3.50 each for the house specialty fish tacos and $3 of their classic tacos, I’m sure they would have been great tacos had they not been bland. Unfortunately for Buena and for myself, the tortillas and seafood were certainly fresh, but all tasted the same to me; the jumbo Pacific shrimp was nice with about three shrimps on one corn tortilla.

The Classic tacos were the next step up from the fresh fish tacos (minimal flavor to them) the carnitas were decent, but the pollo was better. The spiced crema included gave the taco a nice kick, whereas even though the carnitas had a pineapple and jícama slaw, it was unnoticeable.

As I finished off the pollo, I felt unsatisfied. I took a sip of my frozen margarita and felt as though the bartender just poured a few bottles of tequila in the slushy machine and added buckets of ice into the mix. The Baja margarita rimmed with salt was actually a pleasant surprise and tasted quite good; probably the only good item that came out of the meal.

Of course, chef Garces always encourages multiple visits to all his restaurants, but unfortunately for this beachy taqueria, I will not be strolling in again until the kitchen staff is introduced to salt. 

1901 Callowhill St (at 20th St)
Philadelphia, PA 19130