Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I want a big mexican dinner

I love Mexican food. My favorite Mexican restaurant, Rancho Del Zocalo Restaurante, is difficult for me to get to on a regular basis. Mostly because it's in Disneyland and that's 2,706 miles from my front door. So, I have to make do with what's nearby. 

The Mexican restaurants close to my house (or at least closer than Disneyland) aren't much to brag about. There are a few upscale offerings like El Vez and its less-expensive counterpart El Rey, two of local restaurant impresario Stephen Starr's establishments. While these places are very good, they are also, like most of Starr's roster, overpriced. I realize that they are located in the heart of the Center City Philadelphia restaurant district, but considering the ingredients are pretty common and the preparation is fairly simple, thirteen bucks for a small bowl of guacamole is a bit steep. Stephen Starr's restaurants are best enjoyed when you are the guest of someone who's footing the bill (re: business lunches and birthday dinners).

A little more reasonably priced is Mad Mex, a chain of dine-in restaurants scattered throughout Pennsylvania. It's sort of on the same level of a TGIFriday's or Applebee's, but with edible food. The portions are large and they offer a wide selection of vegetarian-friendly choices.

Mad Mex fills the void left by a single-location favorite called Tortilla's. A family favorite for years, Tortilla's was our "go-to" place for Mexican cuisine. The food was great, the prices were low and the staff was friendly. Until it began to fall apart. Tortilla's changed owners, changed menus and changed staff. The quality dropped, the cleanliness became lax and the new waitstaff was a deadly combination of slow and rude. Within a month of our last, disappointing visit, Tortilla's location had become an Italian restaurant.

The bottom rung on the Mexican food ladder are the fast-food joints. I won't even include Taco Bell because I won't set foot in one based on reputation alone. So, I am left with Baja Fresh, Qdoba and Chipotle. (The closest Moe's Southwest Grill closed and I have not yet tried the first Philadelphia outlet of West coast favorite Wahoo Fish Taco. The Philadelphia area does not have The Green Burrito or Del Taco, although both have terrible reputations. I actually liked Del Taco the few times I've eaten there.) I realize that none of these restaurants are anything close to authentic Mexican fare. I know that their menus are comprised of what Americans think Mexican food is. But, with so few options, I'll take what I can get, if it's at least tasty.

Recently, all of the Baja Fresh locations in my suburban Philadelphia area shut their doors for good. Curiously, one of them, centrally located in a suspiciously-desolate strip mall, reopened as a Chipotle. Earlier this week, Mrs. P and I stopped in to grab something quick on the way home from a full day of holiday shopping.

It was just past the expected dinnertime rush, so the Chipotle seating area was unsurprisingly empty. It was, however, surprisingly filthy. The floor was noticeably strewn with napkins — both crumpled used ones and new ones that had strayed on their way to a table. Undetermined bits of food — absentmindedly dropped and smeared — were mixed with a sampling of plastic utensils and assorted spent condiment packets. Already turned-off from our silent, first-impression greeting, we inched our way to the service counter as we studied the limited menu displayed on several placards high above the food preparation area. We were welcomed by a cheerful young lady who asked my wife is she would like to order. Mrs. P selected a burrito and, as the worker removed a large tortilla from a plastic bag and placed it under a contraption resembling a commercial pants presser, she asked what specific ingredients she'd like added. While my wife pointed out and selected the various vegetarian fillings, a sad-faced young man mumbled something to me that I assumed was "What would you like?," although that was a wild assumption because none of his words sounded remotely familiar... or remotely like words. I requested a burrito and he slipped a tortilla under the "presser" when his co-worker removed the one that was heating up for my wife's order. When prompted, I began selecting my custom ingredients. But just after he scooped a spoonful of drippy black beans into the mound of brown rice already in my tortilla, he placed the half-prepared burrito on the counter and walked away into a secluded room behind the dull metal grill. And there it sat, my poor abandoned meal — open, vulnerable, its black beans glistening under the lights. The young lady was finished preparing my wife's order. She began to wrap the completed burrito with aluminum foil in the patented "Chipotle roll." Meanwhile, my unattended assemblage lay exposed and defenseless. Anyone could walk by and drop anything they wanted into my meal. I got the attention of the young lady who waited on my wife. After she scanned the open kitchen area for her missing co-worker, she happily completed my order. The cashier rang up and bagged our purchase. The fellow who began my order was never seen again.

And that's the way I feel about about Chipotle.

Even if they were next to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.



  1. One of the people my husband often conferences with online always raved about Chipolte, so we decided to try the local one. My first disappointment was the decor. I think of Mexican restaurants as having bright warm colors and some hint of south-of-the-border decor. Our closest Chipolte has white walls, concrete floors and stainless steel tables that my husband thought would be great for performing autopsies.

    The ambiance was downright cold.

    Next, we had no idea what some things were on the menu, but when we asked, we couldn't hear what the workers were saying. I like medium spicy, but my husband prefers mild and he ended up with a burrito that was way too spicy for him. I had a salad that was OK for me, so I traded half my salad for half of his burrito.

    I used the Chipolte website to complain and they sent us a coupon for two complete meals for free. We had the coupons since about June, but I ran across them on Dec. 30th and noticed they expired on the 31st, so we went for our free meals which we took home to eat. After dinner we decided the only thing that was good about them was that they were free.

    There is a small Mexican restaurant about 6 miles from home run by a Mexican family. If I want real Mexican food I go there. The food isn't fancy, but it's good and inexpensive ---more like home-cooked Mexican than restaurant fare.

    1. Thanks for the comment, CJ. I see that I am not alone. I will not pursue a free meal at Chipotle... for obvious reasons.