Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cinco de Mayo

4587 Hunter Lane
Byrnes Mill, Mo

This was a near last-minute decision. No one in the clan had given much thought to eating out this weekend and no one wanted to make a decision. I suggested Los Portales out of lack of a better idea, Angel offered up another Mexican joint, Cinco de Mayo, a place we don’t get to very often. I thought that was better choice for the very reason that we don’t get there often.
The Place:
Alongside highway 30 in Byrnes Mill/House Springs. It’s an orange, faux-adobe structure topped with a big yellow sign. The parking lot was packed pretty tight. Inside, the place itself was nearly filled. The hostess had to think for a moment about where to seat us. She took us to the left this time to what probably used to be the smoking section. The interior walls were also orange and heavily populated with beer signs. Two big, flat TV’s mutely played ESPN, neither TV was in eyesight of our booth.
A young man rushed up and introduced himself as our waiter. He asked about drinks, and against better judgment I asked for tea. Angel went for Diet Pepsi and Adam, the regular Pepsi. Angel recalled that the last time we’d been there that the tea was horrible. I remembered that too, it was a flowery concoction that tasted a little like hand lotion. At the time the manager said that they were thinking of canceling the tea vendor’s contract. Apparently they had, the tea I was given didn’t taste like hand lotion anymore, it tasted like nothing at all.
There were large parrots painted on the windows and several faux-parrots hanging from the ceiling, enough immobile parrots that I kind of expected a Monty Python sketch to break out at any moment.
The Food:
The chips arrived shortly, a big basket, along with a beaker of salsa. Adam poured the lumpy stuff into the provided bowl and the crunching began in earnest as we scanned the menus.
 Burritos, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, various combinations of beef, pork, chicken and shrimp. Oddly, ‘parrot’ was not listed anywhere.
I finally decided on a chicken chimichanga which included rice and refried beans. Angel, a fan of most things seafood, decided on shrimp pollo which sounded exciting to me until I found out that it was not a sport involving smacking a little ball around with a mallet whilst riding saddled shrimp, I’d pay to see that. No, it simply meant a dish of shrimp and chicken. She said later that she’d actually wanted the fajitas, served sizzling on a blazing hot iron platter, but with her still-recovering left arm she thought it might simply be too dangerous. A wise plan being as merely shampooing her hair has proven almost lethal.
Nachos Supreme
Adam went simple, the Nachos Supreme (chicken). No one was really pushing the edge, pretty basic stuff. So we sat and munched on the thin, some might say too thin chips. Many of them broke off scooping up the moderately thick, spicy salsa. Nearly half the chips in the basket were barely more than crumbs, we’d been served from the bottom of the bag.
The people kept flowing in, it was nearly stacked to the rafters with people, a bustling, busy place amped up in energy by the classic rock radio station playing ‘Walkin’ on Sunshine’ and other upbeat anthems overhead.  No mariachi, corridos, ranchera, or even creepy narco-corridos*, it was all-American rock, which clashed with the parrot and palm on adobe theme of the restaurant. About as Mexican in overall ambiance as Taco Bell.
Call me old fashioned, call me a traditionalist call me a romantic, call  me a hapless idiot, but when I go to a place-themed restaurant I like music from that area. Chinese, Italian, Greek, Mexican, even Kentucky Fried Chicken, I want music from the place. Is that too much to ask?
Another basket of chips arrived, the very busy place was keeping the young, pale, all-American staff on their toes. There used to be Mexicans working there, none could be seen this evening. Not necessarily a problem, but all my favorite Mexican joints are owned or at least operated by Latinos. I’m not meaning to be racist, but I really believe the best Mexican food is made by Mexicans.
The wait grew longer. I was almost full from the addictive chips and salsa. Our waiter, not named Pedro, Jose or Miguel, but rather ‘Kyle’ came out and apologized, saying that the ‘party of twenty one’ was almost done being served and our order would follow that one shortly.
About one third or less of the way into the second basket of chips, a young lady brought a third basket, saying “your server said you wanted more.”
Okay, the place was busy, but not beyond advertised capacity. In all, three people stopped by to check on us. None offered drink refills.
The food finally did arrive; Adam and I got our plates a full several minutes ahead of Angel’s. Awkward waiting ensued.
Chimichanga: A deep-fried burrito.
So what I expected was a crunchy tortilla wrap. No, it wasn’t. It didn’t look as though it had been anywhere near cooking oil. The tortilla cut like a fresh one, even doughy on the ends. There was no crunch to it at all. The taste wasn’t bad, but it was a burrito, not a chimichanga. In the middle of the plate was a pile of green avocado puree, guacamole, which at best I am not a huge fan of, but in this case it had absolutely no flavor at all. Something that green should have a stronger taste. There was also a smattering of shredded lettuce and tiny pieces of tomato topped by a dollop of sour cream. I cut the chimichanga/burrito and swirled everything together. It would have been better with a crunchy element, but it wasn’t bad, though it lacked any ‘zing’.
Shrimp Pollo
Angel enjoyed hers thoroughly. She said that the chicken was moist, almost buttery and the onions, peppers, shrimp and mushrooms were all very good. Adam didn’t say a lot about his nachos but he did eat more than half and didn’t complain other than ‘The chips were too thin.’ They used the same fragile, wafer-thin (yet another Monty Python reference) chips in the nachos as were in the baskets.

We had our fill and the food was pretty good to excellent. The crowd may have led to the several service slips, the unsolicited chip glut, the complete lack of drink refills and the delays. These are typical anywhere when staff is stretched thin. They worked hard to be sure, but you could almost see on their faces the overwhelming pressure to just get through the busy night. It’s chief among reasons I don’t care for really busy places.
The bill came to only thirty three dollars and change, a good bargain for the amount of food. I didn’t tip very much, too many service mistakes. I’ve seen servers thrive in such chaos, this gets tipped well. There were no catastrophic errors here, just no one rising to the occasion and too many small errors.
I was hoping for something a little more fresh and bright. My food was certainly okay, but it lacked punch, zing, sparkle. The rice, beans and chicken all pretty much tasted alike. Angel even said that as good as hers was, it didn’t seem Mexican at all, more like Mexican-lite.
I’d like to go back, but only if the crowd was smaller, to give them a chance to shine. The place is certainly popular, which says a lot.


*Narco corridos: Ballads about drug trafficking and related violence, I’m not making this up, they’re quite common.

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