This post originally appeared in the June 17, 2019 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
It has become easy to never eat a meal you did not explicitly plan to eat. At this point, best-of maps (cough cough) and city guides mean you can spend your entire dining-out life without a single mediocre bite hitting your tongue. It’s great! If I’m eating out, I spend most of my day salivating over the restaurant’s menu and texting my friends to figure out what we should share. Would it shock you to know the idea of a surprise birthday party horrifies me? I do not like the unknown!
But even I understand that there are times when you can’t figure out what you’re going to eat six hours from now, or when varying tastes and restrictions mean finding something that works for everybody, or when you’ve been wandering around all day and you’re starving and you have to hop into a pub and grab something or you’re going to faint. And if you want that thing to be at least all right, the move is: Get the quesadilla.
I’m not talking about the Mexican food of masa tortillas and stringy Oaxacan cheese that’s commonly served on the street or in home kitchens as an easy snack. I’m talking about the bar quesadilla. It’s usually made with massive, prepackaged flour tortillas; stuffed with shredded Jack cheese or cheddar, sometimes also with grilled chicken breast or steak strips; and served with honking tubs of salsa and sour cream. The quesadilla is a genius addition to pubs that sell burgers, fried chicken strips, and halfhearted salads. Essentially, it’s a harder-to-mess-up grilled cheese. If done right, it’s got a slight, buttery griddle crunch to it; the cheese is perfectly melted; the meat (if you have it) is bite-sized and salty; and the whole thing is a vehicle for lighting up whatever pleasure center in your brain is dedicated to the mixture of hot (cheese) and cold (sour cream) dairy.
What makes the quesadilla the move, though, is if it’s not done right, it’s still better than most mediocre bar food: Some meals are less about maximizing the pleasure of eating and more about mitigating disappointment. Of course, you could get a burger or a salad, but the more variables to the dish, the greater the potential fall. This is true for any meal, probably, but especially at bars and pubs, where food is meant to soak up beer as much as it is to taste good.
The quesadilla will be fine, and even if it isn’t, a subpar quesadilla is nowhere near as frustrating as a flavorless bowl of tomato soup, a wilted Caesar salad, or a rubbery burger. The cheese might not be melted all the way, and the tortilla might be a little dry, but it will still be a crunchy, cheesy triangle meant to be loaded up with guacamole. A stuffed chip, really. You will have an enjoyable enough time eating it. It will not ruin your day.
Ordering the melty, crunchy quesadilla, no matter what’s on the menu, no matter if there’s something that might be “better,” puts me at ease every time the only place to pull over on the highway is a TGI Fridays, or when the only place to eat around the convention hotel is a pub. Having a go-to order for the mediocre American menu has actually made that eating experience a treat. Or at least a good reminder that the best meals don’t have to be The Best. — Jaya Saxena
P.S. Read up on the fascinating history of the roti quesadilla, created by California’s Punjabi-Mexican community in the 1970s.