Munchies Restaurant & Bakery

Food writers worth their title don't shirk from taste-testing the dishes that make some readers wary.

Consequently, my mealtime choices include plenty of collard greens, snails, raw fish, liver and other organs, even fig-sauced, macaroni-topped pizzas. But this column is not one of those.

Even the most adventurous palates tire of tacos stuffed with ducks' tongues and lychees or beef tendon and Kumamoto oysters. After going out on a culinary limb, it's comforting to eat familiar foods served hot and fresh in a pleasant atmosphere by competent staff.

That's how they do it at Munchies Restaurant & Bakery. This Ashland institution continues to lure customers for breakfast, lunch and dinner below the Plaza's street level into the cellar of the Odd Fellows Building.

The low-ceilinged, brick-walled dining room hummed with activity on a recent weekday afternoon, my first visit in more than a decade. A few weeks and a very satisfying lunch later, it was so quiet that I felt privy to one of Ashland's best-kept secrets.

In business for more than 20 years, Munchies specializes in Americanized Mexican food that pleases tourists, students and locals of all ages and dietary persuasions. The place also serves delicious hamburgers with fresh-cut fries and a commendable array of breakfast items through the afternoon and evening.

"It's a safe place," said my friend and co-worker, who joined me for a recent lunch.

Munchies' turkey burger previously had won me over. For reasons I can't fathom — particularly since the pink-slime debacle — turkey patties remain frustratingly elusive. Not only will Munchies substitute one free of charge with any burger, but I hadn't a single quibble with my grilled-onion and -mushroom version ($9.95).

The ratio of toppings was perfectly balanced: nothing spilling out the sides or soaking through the lightly toasted bun. If the meat wasn't quite as moist as fattier beef, I still needed more than one napkin. Even the off-season tomato, which I usually discard, was bright-red and juicy.

Munchies' claim to fame is hand-cut fries. The portion is generous, but they're a bit thick for my taste, despite the nice contrast of crispy potato skin. But I could understand their appeal as "Irish nachos" ($7.95) topped with cheese, bacon bits and sour cream with optional chili (add $2).

Another mainstay, Munchies' burrito delivers a hearty meal that can be made more healthful with selections of a whole-wheat tortilla instead of white and grilled vegetables instead of steak or chicken. My friend ordered the small size ($8.95) with chicken and black beans.

This time, I chose the scramble ($11.99) with fresh spinach, shrimp, cream cheese and tomatillo sauce on the side. I prefer wild-caught Pacific pink shrimp to farmed and inquired along those lines. When the server attested that the shellfish were "tiny," I felt secure in the selection.

In reality, they weren't Pacific shrimp but were perfectly cooked. I wasn't expecting cream cheese pooled as a sauce over the eggs. But stirring it in created the creamy texture I love in eggs, which were nevertheless passably fluffy.

The scramble's mild flavors were offset by the side of sweet, red-skinned potatoes that verged on salty. Ordering the eggs' green sauce on the side provided a nice dipper for the spuds. I even dunked crusts of the house-baked, cinnamon-raisin bread owing to its barely discernible sweetness and spice.

My friend asked for a side of guacamole ($1) with her burrito that boasted more beans than chicken. Opining that the dish was plain didn't keep her from cleaning the plate.

"That was really good."

Sharing a fondness for carrot cake — for which Munchies is noted — we asked after the freshness of two slices in the bakery case. When the server recommended the Marionberry pie a la mode ($6.30), we happily complied.

Chock-full of berries under a thick, buttery crust, the pie didn't need its side of vanilla ice cream. The price tag may seem a bit hefty, but so is this slice of pie, which held its shape and didn't ooze juices all over the plate.

— Sarah Lemon

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