It’s Friday night, and you have a powerful hankering for Mexican food. A friend recommends Bulldog Burrito, but your restless soul hungers for more. You know what you value in a Mexican restaurant: distance from campus.
If nothing else, C.O. Jones provides that much, located at 969 State St., two blocks past Modern Apizza. Unfortunately, C.O. Jones makes up for the inconvenience of the trek by providing neither good food nor value.
C.O. Jones seems to be stuck in the throes of a powerful identity crisis, unable to decide whether it is a restaurant or a bar, and in its indecision, it performs neither function well. Its menu perfectly illustrates the unresolved tension between its aspirations to highfalutin cuisine and standard bar fare. Though disappointingly dominated by burritos — a flaw common to many of New Haven’s Mexican restaurants — there are some more unusual offerings on the menu, such as quesadillas with goat’s cheese and an extensive and ambitious vegetarian section.
On the other hand, the majority of its appetizers are more pedestrian, focusing on slightly dressed up renditions of nachos, chicken tenders, chili fries and wings. Enchiladas and anything mole are nowhere to be seen. In fact, nearly everything on the menu is intended to be eaten without a knife and fork.
If the restaurant could deliver on the ambitions of its menu, C.O. Jones might have reason to be proud of itself. The fresh salsa is delicious — mild and cilantro-y. Unfortunately, everything else is a miserable failure. The chips, for one, are inexcusably bad. Stale and odd-tasting, it is highly unlikely that they are prepared on site, and if they are, that’s even more offensive.
Many of the offerings have the peculiar quality of including little of the title ingredients. In the roasted asparagus and veggie burrito, the absence of large quantities of asparagus is understandable. In the chicken burrito, the absence of chicken is unforgivable. The extra plates and cutlery left over from the appetizers found themselves pressed into service again as one dining partner scooped out the contents of his burrito in a desperate search for the steak he had been promised.
The burritos are overwhelmed with dry, cajun-ish rice and black beans, and grilled briefly in a panini machine that flattens their usual tubular shape. Cut on the diagonal, the flattened burrito pieces look nice when plated with a roasted corn salsa that tasted solely of roasted corn.
Furthermore, the burrito had been flattened the wrong way, separating the ingredients of the burrito into distinct bites. Getting the full flavor of a C.O. Jones’ burrito requires several nibbles, one to get a bite of the beans, one for the rice and another for the nonexistent meat.
The few items that do not skimp on their principal ingredients are over-run by their taste. The sweet potato tacos literally overflow with excessively sweet potato chunks. The mahi-mahi Baja burrito is fishy, and its only concession to Baja cuisine is the addition of a creamy sauce and wilted lettuce to the same oppressive rice and bean combination.
Some of the better dishes tasted nothing like what their name would suggest. A chicken-chipotle quesadilla tasted more like a balsamic barbeque sauce than chipotle, but the sweet combination of peppers and onions was still far better than any of the burritos.
C.O. Jones’ identity crisis is also felt in its bewildering interior design decisions. The restaurant makes its patrons confront their unresolved personal space issues through the forced intimacy of small tables jammed into a dining space not that much larger than the average Yale common room.
The lack of space is compounded by the absence of any readily available coat rack, though those seated near the door may have preferred to keep their coats on to shield themselves from the occasional blasts of frigid New Haven air.
The restaurant is one of an increasingly common pool of establishments that equate darkness with trendiness. The interior, whose exposed brick and maroon walls are kitschily festooned with western iconography and a stylized painting of Albert Einstein, is significantly darker than the poorly lit street outside. While the dim light flatters dining companions’ faces, obscuring the cosmetic ravages of the end-of-semester workload, it also obscures the food and even the large block print of the menu.
Despite these issues, C.O. Jones does have a certain inexplicable charm. A selection of top 40 music soothes the din of the preposterously dark and crowded space. The staff is friendly, though unprepared to deal with the surprisingly heavy traffic of non-Yalie patrons on a Tuesday evening.
If you lived around the block, laziness could excuse your decision to endure C.O. Jones’ overpriced culinary misadventures to get a round of drinks with some friends. For anyone else, that decision could only be attributed to masochism.