Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pizza Grande

“I’m starving!” Mrs. Mingus flatly stated at eleven at night in Tallinn after a concert we’d recently attended.
—Where do you want to eat? I asked.
“Where can we?” came the reply. We weren’t too familiar with the after-hours food scene in the Old Town area of Estonia’s capital, so we asked our friends—foreigners who were long-term residents of the area and locals alike. Apart from the couple of kiosks that served mystery meat burgers soaked in a ketchup-and-mayonnaise potion, the unanimous answer was: Taco Express.

Tex-Mex food in Estonia? Is it authentic? Keep in mind that “Tex-Mex” is the term used to loosely describe Americanized Mexican food. No, this place was not authentic. We’d eaten at Taco Express before. This was hardly standard fare Tex-Mex. More like “Est-Mex”. Everything was straight from a jar and smothered in the ill-named “Athlete Cheese”—the cheap Estonian equivalent of North America’s fabled spray cheese for crackers. Taco shells served soggy. Nachos accompanied by sour cream and not salsa. Did we have a choice?

We waited for Krista the cashier to approach the register, and then placed our orders. Just before paying, she volunteered the most unusual information: “It will take at least half an hour before your food is served.” The restaurant was empty. We cancelled our orders and left. We were tired.

To be honest, I’m surprised at the lack of food available late at night in the capital of an entire country. Especially a capital that is representing all of Europe as its “Capital of Culture”. Like I said, there are those mystery meat burgers from Tall Egg that are assembled and sold everywhere…but is that how Estonia wants to be remembered by legions of visiting looters from the British Isles? Even Tartu has ample food in the late hours. And on top of that, Illegaard has arguably the best burgers in the country now, orderable until two. There’s even a Tex-Mex burger. At only two and a half euros. Whole-beef patties imported from Ireland.

Our host assured us he had snacks at his home. But our host was a notorious bachelor, and a Texan on top of that. We shared a package of flour tortillas. Just the tortillas. At least we weren’t hungry, and we did get some semblance of Tex-Mex. Ah, to be a gringo.

On the way out of town late the next morning, I decided that I couldn’t wait for the food on the train, that I wanted a quick, cheap, tasty and filling meal. I knew just the place: Pizza Grande, on Väike-Karja Street. According to the name, it was Tex-Mex!

Now, I am very familiar with this place. Over the past five or so years, I have taken at least ten visiting friends and family members to eat here. All are satisfied. “I didn’t expect pizza like this in Eastern Europe!” and “Good crust!” are common responses to the standard in-meal question most commonly asked by polite hosts: “So?”

This place is cool because it is literally located in a hole in a wall. Word on the street is it’s popular with the Russians, but when you’re sitting inside you wouldn’t know, because no one is talking. They’re all busy eating. After walking through a tiny, cozy courtyard, you descend the steps to the bar, where you order. A small is large enough for a hungry man, and a large is enough for three men with small appetites. That is, if you can all agree on what to order.

The selection is broad, and you can substitute ingredients at your whim. But do not dare bring your own drink into this establishment. Otherwise you are liable to be fined, or worse—your drink could be confiscated! Wait a minute, fined? Who’s going to fine you? Get caught drinking something you brought and I can fully understand having your drink being taken, being asked to leave or—most humanely—being asked to pay for a drink, but a ticket? That sounds horribly Danish.
“You must pay penalty. No own drink here.”
—Um, yeah, sorry about that. How about I just put it away and order a new one from the bar?
“No, you must pay fifty euro for break rule.”
—Come on, man. Be reasonable. I walked in with a bottle of water. It’s hot outside.
“No hot in Estonia. Pay fine or no pizza for you.”
—Sounds good to me. I’m going to Taco Express!

I can’t remember what I ordered, but it was a somewhat spicy pizza, with slices of jalapeños on it. Mrs. Mingus ordered a creation with pesto and chanterelles. Her pizza was interesting. Somewhat in the bad sense of the word. Chanterelles just didn’t fit with the whole concept of “pizza”. But that’s personal preference, and I was still very satisfied—as always—with my pizza.

The condiments are interesting. Apart from salt, basil and oregano, there was also soy sauce (soy sauce is always popular on pizza, right?) and not just ketchup, but a selection of ketchup—normal, and spicy. That is one thing America should learn from Eastern European pizza. Ketchup is a sorely missed ingredient in Chicago pizzerias.


Yet I do highly recommend this place. I don’t crave it, like I would crave a deep-dish calorie bomb in the States. But the premises are nice, and you can even have it delivered. Apparently there’s a pizza delivery service for any pizzeria in the city. What a great idea for business-owners. Instead of paying for your own fleet of acne-crusted moped-drivers without a license, there’s just one service for everyone. You call, order from anywhere you like, and they deliver. I assume it’s that simple. I don’t live in Tallinn and so haven’t tried it. I wonder if you can pay by card on your front doorstep.

That would just be too bad to be true, on second thought. Accessibility of junk food is a true hallmark of a modern, Western society. Instead of the old-fashioned method of hunting for hours for food under the drunken influence of Suka—I mean Saku—you just touch a piece of plastic a few times, wait a short while, pay by plastic for a plastic bag full of cardboard boxes, and inhale until you have to loosen your plastic belt. Now here’s a novel, modern, Western idea! A fresh salad delivery service! Visitors would definitely remember that one.


Indrek said...

I have to agree that Tallinn has liddle choice of fast food after 23 if you are whid out car ,but you should try next time they are open till 02 a clock and food is tasty(they make great beef fillet burger ) Have to agree that pizza grande is great and the original one in Haapsalu makes even more tasty pizzas ,or maybe it is the atmosphare over ther .
But i have to ask how on earth can you call Illegard (+1,50 for sh*tty chips ) burgers the best in Est ?? Nothing speacial in them , peace of frozen meat whid a old bun. Last time i wanted to order some chips(Aprill) the waitress told me do not !! cause the oil is not changed for a week! The hygine of the kitchen is real bad and that is what the employers say. Trust your waitress :)Pizzaz are good but have had 2 times the waitress telling me oh the chicken is not so fresh try smthing else .well did not want to bitch about Illegaard so much! But good burger in Tartu ?1? have you tried Sirius grillburger( beef+fresh salad+ wholegrain bun)
I now that Sirius sound nuclear but the grillburger they do is tasty and worth do try

Kristopher said...

" I’m surprised at the lack of food available late at night in the capital of an entire country."

Whoa, no night food in the Old Town or no night food in all of Tallinn?

150 meters from Freedom Square is VS Cafe, kitchen should be open till the wee hours. That's decent Indian if you avoid the ground lamb. I'll bet you a meal that there are 5 other options within a 5 minute walk of the Old Town with kitchens that stay open late or at least past 11:30pm, especially near Rotermann. And I'll take that meal in Tallinn... :)

Mingus said...

Kristopher: Like I said, I wasn't familiar with the scene...we ate based on recommendations. I'll check out VS next time.

Indrek: Illegaard introduced all new burgers I believe in May, or maybe even June. I make no claims about the chips/fries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to this post, I'm currently eating a large Pizza Grande now. Delivered to my door, and paid for in plastic, of course. They have these same portable card terminals that train conductors have, the ones that use the cell phone network for data.

*** said...

Another pizza/food delivery Pizzatakso delivers from Rucola too - salads, soups, pastas, pizzas. Not too bad. Cards accepted.