I'm not exactly sure what kind of restaurant Salud is trying to be, but across our visits, I know what it wasn't: "a sophisticated establishment" offering "great food with a unique twist," as the downtown spot's Facebook page puts it. I'm not saying there's no value here — especially with a bar full of añejos, reposados and blancos from most of the major distillers — but outside of the alcohol, there seems to be no guiding light to the place.
First, the ancillary experience is spotty. At one point we were helped by a friendly, self-confessed 19-year-old who could tell us nothing about the tequila, but who thought the tacos were the best thing on the menu. (They're not, but more on that later.) At another point, a nice woman of undetermined age shouted over to the bar from our table when we had a question about the soup of the day, and into the kitchen when we had an order. (She did, however, support our drink choices with a hearty endorsement of "liquor therapy.")
And though the dining room brings some order to the experience — warm colors with stone accents, granite tabletops and a giant bottle of Patrón above the fireplace — the music one afternoon was Kenny G's saxophone honking out Gershwin's "Summertime," followed by other cuts of the genre. Not that a tequila joint can only play Gipsy Kings, but there's a lack of consistency that comes through on the menu, too — a menu that you could probably duplicate with little effort.
Take the aforementioned hard tacos ($8.95). After being pitched that the tortillas were made and fried in-house, out came Taco Night at the Johnsons: perfectly formed, bright-yellow shells that looked straight from an Old El Paso box. Toppings were bagged cheese, iceberg, tomatoes and chicken. (We'd asked for beef.)
Salud's menu moves to Italy with the "Anti-Pasta" ($8) — salumi à la supermarket, delivered minus the advertised olives and balsamic — a Caprese salad, and wet bruschetta ($5) with spicy salsa fresca, but soon veers straight into middle America. The Monte Cristo ($9.95) delivers three, fried triple-stacks soggy with oil, while the El Paso Chicken Club ($8.25) on wheat toast comes off fine, if dry. Soup-wise, our bowl of chicken and rice ($4) lacked character.
The Mexican Stuffed Cheeseburger ($8.50) wasn't bad, outside the bland cafeteria fries, but the server-recommended, uniformly shaped Crispy Spiced Queso Bites ($8) were freezerific. All of these are joined by similarly disjointed options like a Cobb salad, quesadillas, fried mushrooms and bacon-rosemary prawns (which the restaurant was out of).
The weirdest moment was probably when we wondered what the bizarrely nondescript Salud margarita ($3.75 at happy hour) was rocking. A "mix of tequila, salt and lime with a twist," it tasted like tonic and kicked like a mule. Turns out, says our server, "the twist" is Grand Marnier and effing Everclear. Might, uh, want to tell people about that ...
If you don't want to crawl home, the neon Blue Rita ($3.75 at happy hour) is OK, though the coconut rum makes for sickly sweetness, and the strawberry jalapeño margarita ($7) is just outright delicious, fruity with bite. Too bad it wasn't enough to rescue a couple experiences I thought might be different and cool, based on how chef Larry Beavers described the restaurant to the Indy in March, but instead were neither.