Wasting Away in Margaritaville
The waiter stood there expectantly, his pen hovering over the order pad as he waited for the woman to tell him what she wanted for dinner. All of a sudden, a noise that sounded like victory music from a kids' video game rang through the dining room, and the woman gave the waiter a vaguely apologetic look and said, "Hold on a sec," as she picked up her cell phone from the table and answered it.
"Hello?" she said. "Oh, hi! Yeah, we're at the restaurant, and I'm just about to order. Uh-huh. Well, we're not sure what we're going to do afterward. Well, we want to take our time. Yeah. Okay. See you later on, then. Okay. Bye." As she set the phone back down on the table next to her silverware, she smiled at the waiter, who was actually still standing there, the look on his face a mixture of incredulity and resignation. "Sorry about that," she said, not sounding sorry at all. "I'll have the chicken mole."
This can only mean one thing, folks. The idiots are winning.
To his credit, the waiter had chosen professionalism over what I'm certain was an overwhelming desire to curse the woman in Spanish and walk away. The place was packed, he had many other tables to take care of, and the audacity of the woman would have justified nearly any action. He did roll his eyes as he hurried to the kitchen, though.
But the whole incident made me realize that there is actually a need for chain restaurants like Tres Margaritas. Without them, we'd have to deal with people like this on a regular basis; this way, the people with half a brain can go elsewhere. Because if I run into this woman again -- who answered the phone no fewer than four more times while she dined with six of her friends and family members (who was left to talk to on the phone?) -- I'm going to pour a margarita over her head.
That wouldn't be such a hardship at the foolishly named Tres Margaritas, which served terrible margaritas. My Cuervo Gold version ($4.50) tasted like watery lime juice, and there were exactly seven flakes of salt on the rim of the glass. But, hey, it's hard to complain too much when this restaurant was a haven for people like the two couples across from us, who'd brought their combined seven children, ages four to ten, with them. The kids spent two hours racing around the dining room, yelling, bothering customers and, at one point, crashing into a server who lost control of her tray and dumped a bad margarita all over a patron. I overheard one of the mothers telling another diner that she hated to make the kids stop because "they've been cooped up all day in the house, and we wanted to let them stretch a little."
In a restaurant?
It all would have been easier to swallow if the margaritas had been easier to swallow. But they weren't -- and the food wasn't, either, starting with the salsa, which was canned tomato purée doctored up with fresh cilantro left mostly as whole leaves, along with huge chunks of onion and just enough jalapeño bits to make it taste like tomato sauce with jalapeño bits. It obviously had been made fresh, but there's such a thing as too fresh with salsa, because none of the ingredients had been allowed to meld. Our table of three did, however, get two bowls of the stuff.
In fact, generosity was not a problem at Tres Margaritas, and the prices were right. A small combination plate of chimichanga, guacamole and sour cream ($7.95) brought one large chimichanga and equally large blobs of guac and sour cream, along with standard-issue refried beans, rice and "cole slaw," which seemed to be nothing but shredded lettuce and tomato. We'd ordered the shredded beef in the chimichanga and were disappointed to find that Tres Margaritas' idea of shredded beef was really torn hunks that were dry and chewy; the "picadillo" stuffing, which consisted of crunchy onions and green bell peppers, provided little relief. And the consistency of the guacamole was so bland and creamy that the only thing distinguishing it from the sour cream was the fact that it was green.
There was also something very unsettling about the chile relleno combination ($7.95). It featured an undercooked pasilla pepper that had been stuffed with ranchero cheese -- a type of queso fresco that doesn't really melt but just sort of spreads out when it's heated -- and blanketed with an egg batter that was as stiff as an old pancake. The whole thing was smeared, not smothered, with a watery, orangeish sauce that didn't taste like anything.
There were only two items during that first meal that I'd go for again, and both of them were made fresh. The shredded beef in the eight-inch-long tamales ($3.25 apiece) was much tastier and much more tender than the beef in the chimichangas, and the sopaipillas, six to an order ($2.25), were small and dainty, like Spanish beignets: easy to eat and drenched with honey.
On our second stop, a man tried to interrupt the mariachis (seven of them play on Monday nights, and they do it beautifully, without traveling from table to table) in the middle of a song because he needed another drink -- proving, of course, that he really didn't. Another large family made such a horrific mess, not even pausing to consider whether they should do anything about it, that the server didn't know whether to clean it or set up a triage station. One more: The solo woman at the next table had a cell phone that she used as a dinner companion while taking care of all of her business, which wasn't even interesting enough to eavesdrop on.
Unfortunately, the food didn't do much to spark our interest, either. An order of carnitas de res ($9.95) contained more of that dry, chewy top sirloin mixed with large pieces of onion and green bell peppers, all of which tasted like onions. We avoided the refritos, opting instead for black beans that turned out to be just plain, but at least they'd been cooked through. On this visit, the cole slaw was cabbage and carrots that had been shredded and tossed in a black-pepper-studded vinegar. And it's a surprise that Tres Margaritas originated in Colorado -- the first one opened in Fort Collins nearly two years ago -- since no one there seems to know what green chile is. A chile verde did appear on the menu as a pork dish "braised in green sauce," but green chile wasn't listed anywhere else, not even as a smothering option on the burritos. I went ahead and ordered the pork burrito ($3.75) anyway and asked the waiter if I could have it with green chile. "Sure," he said, then brought a burrito that had been smothered in a greasy pinkish-orange sauce that tasted like the stuff on the first visit's chile relleno. A few chunks of pork floated in it, but they seemed to be an afterthought, although something must have contributed to the alarming amount of grease in the sauce. "Is that the green?" I asked. "Oh, yeah," he assured me.
There were a few things to recommend Tres Margaritas, however. The waiter who had so patiently allowed the woman to answer the phone instead of ordering wasn't an exception: Overall, the friendly, cheerful servers were some of the best I've encountered, with many runners backing up the main waitstaff, which meant that chips and salsa arrived promptly, plates were whisked away and drinks were brought quickly. And the atmosphere is lively and cheery, with dusty-rose and dark-green walls and brightly painted chairs.
This is the fifth Tres Margaritas in the state. "We're going to open two more soon," our waiter informed us.
Good. That means there'll be more room for non-idiots at places like Tacos Jalisco. There's not much English spoken at this smallish spot -- no complaints about that here. The decor is reminiscent of someone's paneled basement circa 1974, and there's no alcohol served (at least there's a bar across the street) -- but damn, the food is good. I've eaten there nearly a dozen times -- with not one cell phone or idiot in sight -- since I gave the place a Best Chiles Rellenos award this past June.
My advice? Get everything covered with green chile. Jalisco's is a searing-hot version filled with shredded, smoked pork, and it's just the right consistency for losing something in, like the chiles rellenos ($6), two soft egg-batter-coated Anaheims that had been perfectly roasted, peeled and stuffed to splitting with a runny, nebulous white cheese that oozed out all over the plate as soon as our forks hit the peppers. And the chimichangas ($5) were filled with salty, well-seasoned beef that was actually shredded. The pork burrito comes with green chile inside ($2.50) or smothered -- and they do mean smothered -- on the outside ($3), with a side of freshly made, oniony refried beans. The pork tripe burrito ($3) was excellent, too, and the tongue one, while chewy, had an intensely beefy flavor. For another fifty cents, the burritos come with shredded cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.
A name like Tacos Jalisco raises expectations about their tacos, and I've never been disappointed. The soft ones come in eleven variations, four to an order, made with two corn tortillas each to keep all the fillings in. They all cost $5, and so far I've tried the barbacoa (barbecued cheek meat), the asada (which features tenderloin that's actually tenderloin), the al carbon (with tenderloin fried up with onions and tomatoes), and the birria (shredded lamb). Not a bad one in the bunch, although the al carbon, with its great grill grease and caramelized onion flavor, is my favorite.
Tacos Jalisco also specializes in soups, with a different one offered daily and each ample enough to serve as a meal. A large bowl of caldo de albondigas ($5) on a Tuesday brought seasoned meatballs floating in a beefy broth that tasted like it would cure anything. But it wasn't nearly as restorative-tasting as Wednesday's caldo de res ($5), made with beef bones whose marrow had leached into the broth and thickened it into a salty, heavenly mass. And on Sundays, the menudo ($4), that requisite hangover cure, was packed with tripe and pork and spicy enough to cast out our demons.
If only it could rid the world of idiots.
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