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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

North of the Border: Mexican Food At Its Worst

While Calgary isn't well-known for its variety and caliber of Mexican restaurants, it used to have a stable of decent Mexican or Tex-Mex joints to hit when you had that craving for a margarita and a burrito or a plate of sizzling fajitas. However, it seems that the Mexican restaurants that were in that category have lost their thunder and those that have sprung up are nothing to write home about.

In terms of the former, take the Santa Fe Grill on MacLeod Trail. This longtime Tex-Mex stalwart was always in my Top Ten List and seemed to be a no-brainer for a lazy weekend lunch laden with ice-cold Pacifico beer, a screeching hot plate of fresh fajitas preceded by fresh chips and salsa or one of the dips or accompaniments (read chili con carne) that were offered with them. I returned recently however to learn that this place has experienced a rather shocking fall from grace, which screamed out a change in ownership, whether or not that is, in fact, the case. The service was marginal, the decor was run-down and the food was cold and seemed, to my palate anyway, to be far from fresh. Pre-cooked and re-heated food seemed to be what was before me, whereas before freshness abounded. While I have not returned for a second look and perhaps should, the Santa Fe Grill is not a destination for Knox any longer.

In terms of the latter, you have Julio's Barrio. While not exactly "new", I have never set foot in the place, largely due to its awkward location at the corner of 10th Street SW and Memorial Drive and its related awkward parking situation, so it is "new" to me. Well, it was the parking situation coupled with the fact that despite screams of adoration from Edmontonians, I never enjoyed the fare served at Julio's Whyte Avenue location in Edmonton. Anyway, I decided to give it a whirl last weekend with several of my dining cronies, as we felt like a Mexican feed. Wow. The only word that comes to mind is -- "grim".  While the server was great and brought forward a basket of chips and salsa in a most-timely fashion, the chips were not house-made and seemed to be right out of a bag that had been opened several days earlier. The salsa was "ok". Not a good start. Then we tried the Ranchero Dip, which was promised to be a layered dip comprised of refried beans, sour cream, guacamole, salsa and a variety of cheeses. It too was "ok", but really after a half-inch of all of the other ingredients, was just a giant bowl of refried beans. A more boring offering defies the imagination. For my main course, I had, you guessed it--fajitas. They were ice-cold, with plenty of raw (given the temperature of the skillet) vegetables piled on top.  Despite the server's admirable efforts, the tortillas were also significantly delayed by some kind of kitchen confusion made obvious by the scrambling and discussion among the kitchen staff.  My guests had a variety of burritos and traditional Mexican fare that was also cold and bland.  A disappointment to be sure.

There are some brighter spots in Calgary however --the Boca Loca market serves good, authentic Mexican food, albeit in a less than charming surroundings, Salt + Pepper can be decent on occasion and Avocado Fresh Mexican Grill shows promise although it has the feel of an American Tex-Mex chain (despite the fact that its only other location appears to be in Saskatoon) like Chili's or Chevy's (if you ever find yourself in Arizona). El Sombrero on the "Red Mile" portion of 17th Avenue has also always been squarely average, although in fairness I have only ever ordered their food via delivery, which might be an unfair measuring stick.

While hardly surprising I suspect, if it is great Mexican food you seek, head South of the border--and I don't mean Taco Bell.

Posted by Knox Harrington on November 24, 2009 | Permalink


Try the following:

El Bombazo - 2881-17 Ave. SE
Los Mariachis - 7400 Macleod Trail
Las Tortillas - 4100 marlborough Dr NE

There's also one in the deep SW in a strip mall that was recently reviewed by either Gilchrist or the Sun guy, but I can't find the name. If you like all the foods of Central and South America, there is a really good place behind the Glenmore Inn, but again, I can't remember the name. it's in Gilchrist's "cheap eats" book.

Posted by: Jim | 2009-11-24 10:19:40 AM

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