We are making slow progress through our “restaurants to try” list – no small feat considering the number of fantastic places this town has to offer. Next month, my parents are taking M for a week for “grandma & grandpa camp” during her daycare shutdown. We are going to be kid free for 5 nights (the longest ever – gulp!) and plan to sample a new place every evening. The list of the select 5 is ever evolving. As I’ve said before, M is a very good diner most of the time so we do try many places with her in tow. As we continue to edit down that “top 5” list we are trying to keep it to places we wouldn’t want to take her. Zócalo Mexican Grill & Tequileria on East 4th Street has been on our list but we figured we could take M with us, so tonight we gave it a shot.
We really didn’t research this place at all. We figured that the way they throw around Aarón Sanchez’s accomplishments (James Beard Award nominee, Food Network appearances, finalist on Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”) that it would be pretty good. We also thought that given the caliber of other places on E 4th that any restaurant would have to be very good to draw the kind of crowd Zócalo always seems to have.
So we arrive about 5 minutes early to our 6:30 reservation to find it very full and lively. The hostess is pretty snippy as Mark checks in with her. She seems annoyed at something, but we figured it had already been a busy evening given the baseball game that was just getting underway. As she starts to lead us downstairs she stops abruptly, mid stairs, to reach over the railing and answer the phone on the hostess stand. Um, okay…she just about made all three of us run into her and we were all blocking the stairs which the servers were trying to use. She finally seats us in a booth, throws down the menus and says a server will be with us. Chips and salsa are delivered and we dig in as the review the menu. I was not a fan of either the chips or salsa. The chips were very thick, had little or no salt and were greasy. The “salsa” seemed to be chopped tomatoes with a few diced onions thrown in. The whole bite together was oily, watery and bland.
After waiting at least 10 minutes, a server comes by and tells us of their drink specials. I opted for the classic margarita while Mark got the Key West version. They were huge and while Marks at least had some flavor (pretty much all coconut) mine was very watery and overly salty – maybe I should have dipped the unsalted chips in it!
Service was pretty spotty, with another long wait to order. I got the Carnitas with Citrus Habanero and Achiote salsas. Mark got a combo of a beef burrito and a chicken taco. As we waited for our food we noted the decor. The center of the room was beautiful with a soaring 2 (3?) story ceiling and pretty lighting. A few stereotypical Mexican restaurant wall decor items were scattered about and for some reason there was TV in the corner showing Ghostbusters 2. It was around this time that we realized how loud it was; granted it was probably 90% full, but we could barely hear each other across the table. The music was competing for voice over all the chatter which lead to a pretty loud roar. We had to ask for water which was finally served to us in plastic cups – the waiter mentioned something about the kitchen having trouble washing the glasses.
When our food was delivered it looked good – no bonus points for plating, but appetizing enough. I was extremely disappointed with the carnitas. The pork was dry and chewy, there was no hit of the “adobo rub” the menu had promised and the marinated onions tasted like unseasoned fresh onions that got a quick sauté. Overall the taste was extremely insipid – there were no spices to kick some life into the bland meat. The citrus salsa added a bit of sweetness and some much needed moisture but couldn’t cover up the overcooked pork. The achiote salsa tasted like nothing other then cumin and had very little acid which was much needed. My black beans and rice we also both over-seasoned with cumin which made for a very flat pairing. Mark was not pleased with his selections, either. He said his meats were dry and tasteless and the “salsa” served with it was again the watery chopped tomatoes. I tasted his guacamole and found it to be – surprise! – flavorless. Again it seemed to just be avocado and a few sparse diced red onions. Mark thought his refried beans were okay and the ate most of his rice, but he wasn’t overcome by the plate of all cumin like I was.
The only bright spot of the whole evening was that our bill for 2 entrees, 2 drinks and a kids quesadilla (which was cheese and tortilla – nothing else) was $40. So we weren’t out a ton of cash, but I think for that kind of money we could have had a more flavorful meal at Chi-Chi’s.
In the future, when we want Mexican food we will stick to our local joint, Los Habaneros, for quick, inexpensive meals or the always awesome Momocho for when we want to venture out of the neighborhood. And the next time we are on East 4th there are plenty of other fantastic choices.