Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Buffet China / China Buffet

3833 Lemay Ferry Road
St. Louis Mo.

The Place:
Located near the South County Mall , in a strip mall adjacent to Kmart.
A Chinese buffet in a strip mall? How odd.
We love Chinese buffets. We’ve only found one or two halfway decent ones near where we live. One of them, ‘Emperor’s Wok’ is okay. The other one, in Festus, burned down several months ago. We’ve pretty much been doing without since then. Last week a couple of friends from my writers group, Marty and Cathy told me about this place. They’ve been going there for about fifteen years and were never disappointed. When my turn to pick a place came around I declared it as my choice. There are lots of places to eat, but I was hankering for some Chinese.
As it turned out it was a fortuitous choice, I needed to drop my deer-damaged car off at a dealership less than three miles from the restaurant. We convoyed up to the repair shop then I joined Angel and Adam in the family truckster for the remaining short hop.
It was typical of any strip-mall Chinese buffet; even the name of the place was generic. It said ‘China Buffet’ on the unlit sign outdoors, but the take-out menus said ‘Buffet China.’ Not that it matters really.
We were met at the door by a slight and smiling Chinese lady who merely asked us ‘How many?’ We answered with the universal sign language for ‘3’ *. As she led us toward a nearby table she took our drink orders. We didn’t even need to sit down. She pointed us to the steaming buffet lines; we knew what to do from there. The interior was dimly lit, the walls and floors plain, unremarkable and decorated with the requisite bright red and gold colorful Chinese things.
At the line the plates were still warm in the spring-loaded contraption that reminded me of a card dealing machine. The stainless trays in the warmer were all near full.

The Food:
The food looked fresh, not like it had been setting there percolating since the Ming dynasty as the case in some of these places. There was a wide variety of offerings. As I usually do in a new place I chose a little of just about everything that I determined to be remotely edible.
There were about eight kinds of chicken, Sesame, General Tso, ‘Spicy’, ‘Crispy’, etc. There was also the usual rices, white and fried as well as stir-fry noodles and the normal soups. There were two kinds of hot shrimp available, breaded and non-breaded. I was pleasantly surprised to find the non-breaded and loaded up on them. My first plate was filled with small portions of about twelve different items including each of the chicken types, fried rice and noodles, a crab rangoon and a couple of dumplings (pot stickers). We also found ‘lobster rolls’, something else unique. There was a simple krab (fake crab) concoction that seemed appealing.
When we returned to the table our drinks were waiting for us in mismatched plastic ‘Coke’ labeled tumblers. The tea was fresh but nothing special.
The food was for the most part outstanding. Angel noticed immediately that the vegetables in the fried rice were crispy and fresh tasting. A small thing perhaps, but it makes a difference. They had distinct taste and texture. In fact in every offering where there were veggies they were fresh and not overcooked or limp.
The chicken was cooked perfectly, not dry or tough. The glazes were bright and flavorful. I decided the ‘Crispy’ was the best, but I wouldn’t refuse any of them. The stir-fry pork was full of green peppers and onions, all masterfully prepared. The rangoons were wonton style** and not overcooked. There were no fried wontons. We discussed this and decided it must be a local thing. We haven’t seen many fried wontons since moving to the area. There was also no cashew chicken. (see bonus section)
The food was all quite good, with one notable exception, the dumplings. They were thick and doughy. The filling was fine (not too much ginger) but the wrapper was simply too thick. Also, The lobster rolls, essentially egg rolls with lobster meat, had been cut into two-inch medallions before cooking which made them seem a little overdone. They would have been better if sliced after frying.
Adam declared his favorite, the General Tso’s chicken. He mentioned that it was spiced exactly right, not too hot, but still spicy.
Each of us returned for another plate, Adam dived into the traditional desert offering of banana pudding topped with that Chinese staple, bananas in red gelatin sauce. Angel and I seconded on some of our favored selections. I got more of the Crispy Chicken, which was like General Tso’s but not as spicy, nor as sweet as the Sesame chicken, somewhere between, and cooked just to a slightly crispy caramelization.
I finished up with a return trip to sample the deserts. Of course I glopped some red-gelled bananas on top of some pudding; I also tried a little slice of a thin cake and a white cookie looking crisp with wavy brown line on it.
The cake and the cookie did nothing for me, the bananas and pudding hit the spot.

The service;
The drinks were refilled in a timely manner, the used plates always cleared by the time we returned from a refill. The staff was polite and efficient. The hand written ticket was torn from a book of generic guest checks and listed only ‘3’ and ‘Coke’, ‘Diet Coke’, ‘tea’; and ‘Total $ 31.07.’

We’ve certainly had worse Chinese food. A place in Hillsboro comes to mind. China Buffet / Buffet China was among the best we’ve tried locally and certainly better than any that we ever came across during our five years in Maryland. We liked the place in Festus just as well, but as I mentioned earlier, it burned down. We decided we liked this place better than Emperor’s Wok (at the corner of Gravois and Lindbergh), but not by a huge margin. Angel liked the booths here better than the wide open style at Emperor’s, Adam disagreed. I liked this place better because the waitresses were hotter. So it was officially a tie since I didn’t actually say what I was thinking. That is until we discussed the meal again and were reminded of the freshness of the vegetables.
The price was excellent The evening buffet s listed at $8.49 with the lunch buffet an exceptional $5.79 Our evening total as mentioned earlier was just slightly more than the cheapest meals we’ve found (Steak and Shake and Los Portales) but a better value because it is ‘all you can eat!”
We certainly would highly recommend China Buffet / Buffet China, and indeed we will return there. It would be a fantastic lunch spot before, after, or during a hectic day of shopping at the mall or big box stores in the area.
Final Score: 94.

* Seriously, you’re looking down here to find out what the universal sign language for ‘3’ is? Wow.

** I classify rangoons into two types; Wonton style which is folded triangular or flat with a dollop of creamy filling, and balloon style which has much more filling and is not folded so much as it is twisted at the top like the wrapper were a bag around a ball. I prefer wonton style as they are less messy.

Extra! Extra!: A personal commentary on Chinese food.
I know more about Chinese food than most people. No brag, just fact. I first tried Chinese food in the early eighties while serving a three year tour in northern Japan.
Hang on, don’t throw our atlases at me just yet! I’ll explain.
I know Japan isn’t in China and never has been. (China almost became a part of Japan though as you history buffs may recall).
When you think Japanese food you probably think sushi, sashimi, blowfish, fermented octopus testicles, etc. Well, that’s correct, but only to a point. Just as you’ll find as many similarities as differences between Spanish, Italian, and Greek food in Europe, around Asia you’ll find the same thing. Take rice for example. There’s only so much you can do with rice. Boiled/steamed, fried…. Well that about covers it. Poultry, same thing. Fry it, roast it boil it… it comes down to what you coat it with or dip it in. Japan and much of China share similar growing conditions so spices are fairly common between them. Pork and poultry abound in both countries’ interiors. With all these similarities there is bound to be some natural crossover. Many dishes in either country are very similar to something in the other.
The first several-course meal I had in Japan was indistinguishable from what we Americans consider Chinese food. Egg drop/wonton soup, fried chicken chunks with either a sweet or savory sauce, rice fried with onions, carrots and egg, etc. Sure you could order candied lobster brains and sticky rice wrapped in seaweed around raw fish, but not many Americans did, nor did that many Japanese folks I knew. I also spent a month in Korea, guess what. Similar foods, with a few unique items on the fringes. (Kimchi being a standout, in more ways than one. As if someone wanted to know what would happen if you buried a pot of sauerkraut in the ground long enough for it to go really, really bad.)
Bottom line, there is hardly anything on an American Chinese restaurant menu that is very different from many working class restaurants in Japan, China or Korea.
However it should be noted that to this reporter the center of the Chinese food universe is NOT in the eastern Hemisphere at all. It is in Springfield Missouri. Doubt me?
Go here:
Springfield is absolutely nuts for this stuff. As the article points out the dish was modified slightly from its original Chinese form to suit the local palette. This is no different from the evolutions of dishes throughout Asia. China itself has no less that eight distinct flavor regions. Chinese food in China is at least as diverse as chili or pizza in The U.S. or pasta in Europe. That Mr. Leong took his recipe and tweaked it to fit a certain midwestern U.S. preference, is no different from what his own ancestors did in China. So there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Buffalo Wild Wings

150 Gravois Bluffs Circle
Fenton MO


14 Nov 2009

The Place:
Located near Red Robin and Chili’s in Fenton which we reviewed earlier. It looked exactly like a chain restaurant, a plastic and brightly lit box in a shopping center parking lot. As we entered we were assaulted by noise, football noise. The dining area was surrounded by TV’s, at least two dozen both large and small including three TV projectors. Three walls held very large screens four by eight or bigger, each showing a different projected college game. The sound blasting through the place was from one, and only one of those games; Ohio State vs. someone less fortunate*. This would have been fine if you happened to be facing the right wall, I was not. The game I was forced to watch was muted, I don’t even know who was playing. I do know that when I looked up towards my big screen when I heard the announcer blasting that Ohio State and Iowa were headed into overtime my screen was showing an erectile dysfunction commercial. It was confusing. I could see a smaller TV showing the announced game, but it was a 21 incher about thirty feet away.
I don’t watch football, ever, but here it was impossible not to when on every wall at every angle there were TV’s with nothing but football, the eyes just got drawn to the motion.

The sound was at a level that required patrons to shout at each other across their tables; incredibly loud.
The menu was a simple laminated tri-fold, with very few options. They pushed the wings of course but also the ribs and to a lesser degree their burgers. I didn’t want a burger, especially at a wings and rib joint.
The young, petite waitress had a voice that pierced the sports noise and I imagine kept nearby dogs and ships on alert. We sent her away a couple of times as we were having some trouble coming up with choices.

The Food:
The tea, coke and diet coke arrived, the tea was generic, perhaps Lipton again. It was fresh though. We finally made our choices. I asked for the ribs and chicken, Angel the ribs and shrimp, Adam threw caution to the wind and ordered eight wings with the most lethal heat they would put on them. The rib meals came with fries and slaw. Adam’s fries were ala carte.

Ohio State apparently won their game while the one I could actually see showed mostly big, strong guys in tight pants standing around scratching themselves I don’t recall any actual huddling, punting or running. Though the place was about three quarters full, no one seemed to be really paying attention to any of the games.
The food came, three slick and gooey ribs and about four heavily breaded chicken strips. Angel’s tiny shrimps were about as heavily breaded. I had reluctantly chosen a dipping sauce for the otherwise bland chicken strips from a selection of about ten different levels of taste and intensity. I picked the safe one, honey barbecue. The sauce was sickly sweet reminding me of generic barbecue sauce. It made the chicken taste like candy corn.** They were okay as long as there were fries to settle the palette between bites. There were simply not enough fries as it turned out. They were shoestring style, limp and pasty, but much better than the ribs, (too sweet, greasy and rubbery) and the slaw which had absolutely no flavor at all.
I noticed the slaw-flaw immediately but Angel was the first to say something about it. It was like shredded raw cabbage, period. If there was mayo, or buttermilk, or pepper it was nowhere to be found. There was a little liquid at the base of the slaw but even stirring it around did no good. It was simply shredded cabbage in a small bowl.
As I mentioned, the ribs were, well let’s just say they were awful. In texture and taste they were on the edge of being disgusting. Neither Angel nor I were able to eat half the meat off the nasty things. The initial bite would be sweet, but then an overpowering vinegar taste soon oozed out and lingered. There were simply not enough fries to kill the assault of too sweet and too vinegary.
With half the slaw, ribs, and chicken uneaten by the end of the thin, limp fries we both gave up. The stuff was simply too awful to continue. Adam’s four remaining wings went into a box. His taste buds irreversibly damaged. I tried one, which was a huge mistake. Not only was my mouth pickled by sugar and vinegar, it was also on fire.
So we ordered desert, not because it looked so tasty, but because we were still hungry AND desperate for something familiar and comfortable to repair our taste buds. Adam and Angel had cheesecake, no topping since the only topping they seemed to have was‘raspberry syrup’ which didn’t seem appealing at all. I love cheesecake, but at the moment it sounded too sweet. I might have been tempted had the topping choice been better, say strawberries or blueberries or my very favorite, banana pudding***.
I chose apple pie with an explanation. Many restaurants, this one included assume I want it piping hot with a wad of vanilla ice cream. No. I like my apple pie cold, just out of the refrigerator cold, and I’m lactose indifferent. Ice cream does nothing positive for me, in fact it makes my tummy rumble. I had to explain this to the shrill waitress that I wanted my pie cold. She wrinkled her face and said “It’s like frozen hard as a brick.” I replied “Nuke it to just below room temperature then please, no ice cream” She returned with the two cheesecakes, fresh out of some box, and a slab of nearly frozen apple pie alongside a large pile of vanilla ice cream. Then she handed us all plastic spoons. I was immediately incensed. Apparently my face said as much. I cannot recall ever eating apple pie with a plastic spoon, AND there was ice cream. I said nothing though; I needed the pie to kill the greasy vinegar taste coating my mouth.
The waitress returned sheepishly, having witnessed my silent rage, with two metal spoons and offered them. “These are the only two real spoons I can find.” She just didn’t get it, it’s PIE. Apple pie is fork-food. It wasn’t very good anyhow. There were real apple chunks, but the filling was over spiced and gelatinous, with less than fresh ingredients, much like the taste and texture of those nuclear-heated apple pie pockets you get at McDonalds.
I didn’t quite finish the pie. The ice cream melted into a pathetic caucasian puddle as I guzzled the last of my mediocre tea.

The check came: Fifty eight dollars and one cent. Yikes! The entrée’s had cost nearly twelve dollars apiece, the drinks were two nineteen each, the pie and cheesecake came in at four seventy nine each. Adam’s eight boneless wings, essentially chicken tenders served in a thin cardboard tray cost a buck apiece; his fries were two dollars extra.
None of us finished our meals. I added a very, very small tip**** to compensate for our displeasure; one dollar and ninety nine cents to bring the total up to sixty dollars even.
Of all the places we’ve been Buffalo Wild Wings was by far the worst. There was absolutely nothing about it, price, service, atmosphere, selection, or food quality that would make us ever consider going back. Angel asked me if I would ever recommend it to anyone. I replied “I would not only not recommend it to anyone; I would not even acknowledge its existence.” As for a score, we’ve hit a new low, so I’m just shoving this out there. It is remotely possible that a worse place will be found so I can’t really give it a zero. On a 100 point school type scale I’m going to set it at a dismal, irreparably failing forty. I’d go a little lower if the food contained live vermin or actually caused hospitalization.


* Iowa. I had to look it up. I don’t care for football.

** I like candy corn, in fact it’s my second favorite vegetable after lima beans. I do not like things that just taste like candy corn, especially meat. Candy corn is only good contextually confined to its natural form.

*** Many years ago Angel and I worked for a division of Litton Industries (now defunct) in Springfield Mo. It had a full cafeteria and served full hot meals, including deserts. A lot of the food was mediocre at best but there were a couple of standouts, one being the extra-cheesy macaroni. On cheesecake night they would often top the cheesecake with blueberries or cherries, but on a rare occasion they would top it with leftover banana pudding containing small banana chunks and graham cracker crust, mmmm, luscious! I have not seen this combination offered anywhere since, but I have tried to duplicate it at buffets. It is simply the best desert idea ever. In fact on my list of the best things in the world, cheesecake takes the top three slots, with Angel, my lovely wife, tied at number two with blueberry cheesecake. (She knows this and has been striving to improve her standing for over twenty years. She might make it someday.)

**** I know that tipping is supposed to be based on service, not the quality of the meals. I KNOW that servers are generally underpaid and rely on tips. I’ve been taken to task many times with my strict, merit-based system of tipping so don’t bother I'm not changing. With food service I simply cannot mentally separate good service from lousy food. In this case the food was bad and too pricey for what it was. I have no direct option to pay less for the food, so the tip must suffer to compensate. I have on such occasions written an explanatory note on the receipt or an in-store survey card. Angel hates when I do that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chili’s Grill and Bar

711 Gravois Rd
Fenton MO
7 Nov 2009

"Seriously Dennis, you’ve never been to a Chili’s?"
Maybe I have, I honestly don’t recall. I’ve business travelled quite a bit and have been to a lot of the chain restaurants, but I seriously can’t recall if I’ve ever been to Chili’s. Don’t pound on me if you know I have, what is important is that if I did I don’t remember it.

The Place:
Fenton again, just a block or two from the Red Robin that I complained about a couple of weeks ago. Chili’s is a big chain, all their places look alike. The interior tries to mimic a barn with open rafters and thick, rough wood paneling. Lone stars are everywhere to let you know this is a Texas style barn.
The place was crowded on Saturday night, we had to wait about ten or fifteen minutes holding one of those oversized flashing, wiggling pager devices. Once paged we were escorted to our booth near the back. They scored immediate points with me for the background music, which was loud enough to hear but not blasting. I had feared that there would be country music, being as the place looked like a barn, but mercifully it wasn’t. The theme of the music seemed to be ‘Music that Dennis likes.’ Starting with a cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Neil Young’s “Horse With No Name” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”, U2’s “In the Name of Love” and even the Animals’ “House of The Rising Sun”. Some people would call this “Classic Rock” but I don’t think it’s anywhere near old enough for that moniker as all the songs are younger than I am and I’m certainly not a classic yet.
We were seated and handed our copies of “War and Peace” that served as a menu. The thing was ten pages long. Ten pages is too long, too many choices, just ask Gordon Ramsey; too wide a range of selections begs for trouble.(more on this later)
I made my choice and was ready to order until Angel found an even better choice on page eight. I had picked out a Sirloin, she had found a ‘create your own’ section which enabled me to mix entrees.
The tea, tea and coke arrived in plastic mugs, so we could pretend we were drinking beer. After all we were in a Texas barn. The tea was crisp, clear and Lipton, two points automatically deducted for not being Luzianne… after all, we were supposedly in a Texas barn, how hard would I be to hop over the pretend state line into Louisiana for some decent tea?

The food:
I ordered the ‘create your own’ Sirloin plus Shrimp and loaded mashed potatoes. I inquired about the included ‘seasonal vegetables’. When the waiter responded “broccoli” I made the requisite gagging, hissing and spitting noises. He let me substitute ‘corn on the cob’. I like corn, but as you know I don’t like fussing with served food, and chomping corn off the husk is a little too much effort, but at least it wasn’t broccoli.
Angel went for the Fajitas Trio, beef, chicken and shrimp. Adam ordered the Country-Fried Chicken Crisps. When asked which of the dipping sauces he would like he responded “Gravy” because he is his mother’s son. She used to fill Adam’s baby bottles with it. (Angel denies this.)
The food arrived in a reasonable amount of time. I had ordered my steak two degrees Fahrenheit above raw, and paid an extra $1.25 for the opportunity to do so. The waiter urged me to slice it before doing anything else to make sure it was done to my liking. It was. I should have checked the potatoes and the shrimp at this point, but the savage carnivore in me took over and the bloodlust ensued.
Angel’s plate was sizzling with beef, chicken and shrimp, it smelled great. They gave her five soft tortillas in a lidded warming bowl, the meat and sautéed veggies were served in the sizzling iron flat skillet, and the cold items, the guacamole, salsa, etc. were served on a separate small plate. Some assembly required. I was glad I hadn’t ordered it, too much fussing. Of course I had to cut the corn off my cob, which was quite messy, odd kernels and buttery juices spraying across the table. The corn itself was good though.
Angel patiently and artfully loaded up a tortilla with mostly the meats, the salsa was too hot, she bypassed it completely after a taste. The assembly effort didn’t seem to bother her, in fact she seemed to enjoy the challenge. Adam dunked his heavily breaded chicken chunks into the tiny container of gravy. I say ‘tiny’ since in our family any gravy delivery system under a gallon is just pathetic, almost sad. Adam made it stretch though.
New drinks arrived often, at about the just-less-than-halfway point.
After a couple of divine bites of steak, I tried the potatoes. They were dirty style, topped with cheese, green onions and bacon bits. They were a bit starchy, and not exactly hot. I then took a bite of one of the six medium sized shrimp and loved the taste, sort of. It was spiced just right, but there was something wrong, maybe overcooked, a little rubbery. I asked Angel to try one. She smiled took a bite then sort of winced, like something wasn’t quite right. “Does that taste cold to you?” I asked. That was it, they weren’t just overcooked they had also assumed room temperature. It takes about fifteen minutes or so for shrimp to drop to that temperature on a warm plate snuggled up to a steak, I’d had this plate for about two. I took another bite of the potatoes, same thing, room temperature. I dug into the core of the potatoes and found a small hotspot or two. Microwave reheated? That would also explain the rubbery texture of the shrimp. The kitchen was not managing time and delivery well. These side items had been plated well ahead of the steak.
By this time the waiter had disappeared so I tried to pretend it was all okay. The shrimp was not getting any warmer though and by the third one I couldn’t take it any more… same with the potatoes, I dug out the hot spots but there would be leftovers. The steak I finished, but this was the first time in my long and handsome life that I’d abandoned shrimp; they had given their lives in vain.
We were all full by the end of our meals, and more or less satisfied. Angel had earlier urged me to send my plate back but I didn’t. Except for a black pepper hot-spot or two the steak was wonderful, and I was afraid that I would be punished with it if I sent the plate back because of the sides.
I did mention it to the waiter when he came around to ask about desert. He had noticed the abandoned shrimp on the plate and seemed concerned when I told him the problem. We refused desert as we most often do, and he went away for the check. In the interim a headphone clad lady approached and asked if everything was okay, I sensed she had been summoned. I reluctantly told her about it and she assured us she would have a word with the kitchen staff.
We paid and departed.

The tab, with modest tip came in at sixty dollars. I scored Chili’s an eighty five for the cold food balanced by an excellent steak. Angel and Adam were quite satisfied with their meals however Angel was really bothered that we had to wait as long as we did to get in. She’s not spent much time in really big cities where reservations and long waits are merely part of the experience. She was irritated enough to rate Chili’s an eighty. Adam offered no score, he’s just not judgmental that way. Angel also LIKED the massive menu and the plethora of choices, We discussed this at length but neither of us could change the other’s opinion, so we did what we usually do in case of a tie, we yelled at Adam. Final score; eighty three. That’s a ‘C’ in my grading book.

Bonus! Extra words for no additional charge!
What happened here with the shrimp and potatoes is unfortunately not rare enough. These chains all potentially suffer from the same symptoms. Too large a variety stretches the abilities of any kitchen staff to properly prepare so many different offerings. Add to that that there are no chefs in these places. They have boilerplate trained cooks to prepare formulaically designed meals according to a strict procedure. There’s no love, if you know what I mean. Attention to detail is missing since there is no ownership of the meals. This became obvious to me at another place. It’s a meandering aside, but it is on point.

Ruby Tuesday’s:
This whole quest really started after a trip to a Ruby Tuesday’s. We had frequented that place for a few months. The first time I ate there I ordered the sirloin, rare, creamy mashed potatoes with onion straws, green beans, and a salad bar. It was simply awesome. No, it was perfect. Everything was absolutely perfect, even and especially the tea. I spoke about it ad -nauseam as Angel and Adam can tell you. It was simply perfect. I had never had a more perfectly prepared and executed meal. I went on and on and on about it.. just ask them.
A couple of weeks later we went back. I ordered the exact same thing. This time there were no onion straws. We mentioned it and they brought some out, too little too late.
The next time we went I again ordered the same thing. They delivered the meals before we had time to get through one third of our salad. I hate that. They were rushing us through. The next time, the tea was bitter and the steak tough to the point of being inedible. My knife could not slice it, it could only crush it into sinewy blobs. By this time I was heartbroken and furious. They knew how to make a great meal, they knew how to prepare things perfectly, how could they only get it right one out of four times? The more I thought about it the more I understood. We had been lucky that first time, that’s all just lucky. Errors like this were bound to happen rather often in this meal mass-manufacturing joint. Underpaid, under-trained kitchen staff applying rote procedure to a wide, too wide assortment of meals. This works fine at burger chains where the menu is very limited, prices are rock-bottom and expectations are minimal, but it simply does not scale up to finer foods, especially with such a wide variety of components and products.
This is like Ford Motor Company trying to manufacture Jaguars. Ford’s products and processes are simply not compatible with the expectations of Jaguar customers.
Okay I know that Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s aren’t anyone’s Jaguar, I’m just using an absurd analogy to make a point.
It was very soon after the last disappointing Ruby’s trip that we started discussing alternatives. This eventually led to the creation of this quest, to find better places, or just different places to eat. It also explains the basis for my ratings, my expectations. That first meal at Ruby Tuesday’s would have scored one hundred percent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Los Portales

201 2nd St
Hillsboro MO

1 Nov, 2009

Our expectations were low. What little we had heard about this place was not at all exemplary. I have passed it hundreds of times as it sits across the street from the county courthouse and that street, Highway BB is how one gets from my house to Hillsboro. I had been in once, to meet a guy about some political stuff I don’t want to get into right now. I think I may have had a glass of tea, but no one I was meeting with had food, so I followed suit.
It does get points for convenience though, it is closer to our house that any other restaurant, in any direction. Being that close we HAD to go.

The Place:

Surely it used to be something else, an office suite maybe. It sits at the corner of Highway BB (Second street) and Highway 21 (Main street). The courthouse shares parking spaces. Next to it are the requisites title companies, law offices and bail bond joints. Hillsboro is the county seat. The building appears to be haphazard, maybe it was once a couple of different buildings sewn together. The style of the buildings seems to be of 1950’s or early 60’s construction, with additional external work maybe in the seventies. The entrance is on the side, near the back, and welcomes you with a couple of flashy arcade machines. The bar is prominent and must be passed by all who enter. The lions share of income is probably the bar itself catering to those involved with matters of the court. The tables and guacamole colored booths were spread around two or three distinct areas, all dimly lit with quick-paced Mexican music blasting from every pore. The ceilings were low, the furnishings old and the carpets worn and faded.
The bartender was running the entire floor, busy when we arrived settling up the checks from a large departing group. We waited and were finally offered the choice of ‘smoking’ or ‘just smells like smoking’ sections. We chose the latter which ended up being the front of the building, a few blinds open on the windows giving us a view of Hardees across Main Street. The décor consisted mainly of Corona advertisements, small Mexican flags and a few suspended serapes/sombreros.
We were soon given a basket full of fresh, warm nachos, two salsa bowls and two decanters of rather generic salsa. Menus were passed out and drinks ordered. One ice tea, one Diet Coke and one regular Coke, by now you know who got what.
The menu was large, colorful and filled with many, many options. There was even a glossary to explain what some of the terms meant.

The Food:
Angel ordered the Tamale Deluxe, I requested the biggest combo I could find, the Grande Special. After much deliberation Adam finally decided on Nachos Supreme (without tomatoes)
We devoured the chips which individually seemed quite light, but as they piled up proved quite filling. The tea was cloudy, old and disappointing.
The food came pretty quickly. Mine took up two full sized plates. My goal was to try as many different items for comparison even if it meant I wouldn’t like or finish all of it. On my plates were a small crisp taco, two enchiladas, a burrito, a roasted chili pepper, refried beans and a smooth cheese sauce. It was wonderful. The rice, beans and cheese and enchilada sauces formed a thick, artery clogging pool of savory delight. The enchiladas were simple and small, merely lightly seasoned ground beef in a wrap. The ‘burrito’ on the other plate was more like an open faced taco the crisp tortilla a mere appliance to hold the tomato, beef, cheese and guacamole. I managed to almost finish both plates, and yes I did regret it later, but this stuff was really quite good.
What would have made it better is if I, like Angel and Adam had chicken as their protein rather than beef. They both commented on the chicken and even offered me a sample. It was indeed excellent. The chicken was in shredded form for the nachos and tamale plate, it was tender, moist and had a distinct but not overpowering flavor that we could not quite describe, other than that it was very, very good.
Angel liked, but could not finish her tamale plate because of the layers of nacho chips that had preceded it. She did request a box though.

The Service:
Just a grade above minimal. We only ever saw two people, both young and Mexican, the bartender and another guy who bussed the tables. They were friendly, efficient and capable. Drinks were refilled promptly, the check was delivered quickly. The tables were not bussed quickly, a half hour or so passed before the cleanup of the large group’s tables began. The total tab for the evening including a merely modest tip: thirty dollars and eighty one cents.


It wasn’t fancy, or shiny, or spit polished at all. But the food was truly excellent, the price also excellent. It does not try to pass itself off as anything other than what it is, a small town hole-in-the-wall without pretentiousness or fanfare serving ample portions of authentic Mexican favorites. Yes we do recommend it and yes, we will go back. I give it a ninety four.