big Burrito Group gets quite a lot of love in Pittsburgh, but none of the six bBG restaurants are quite the success that Mad Mex is. While the other restaurants are exclusive single location stops, Mad Mex has six locations in this region alone (and more in Columbus, Happy Valley, ).
It’s not really hard to understand why. Mad Mex offers a decent menu based off a blend of Mexican, Spanish, and Southeastern Asian cuisines, a blend that yields a few surprises to what can be the exhausted standards of most Mexican restaurants. It is also the most economical of the bBG restaurants, with most entrees coming in under twelve dollars (many of them coming in under ten) and Happy Hour specials that offer a good bargain on cocktails and appetizers, especially appealing for the twenty- and thirty-something urban professionals that serve as the eatery’s prime demographic.
I had only ever been to the Mad Mex in Oakland and Wes had never been to any of the locations, but he pointed out that there is one located right over in Scott Towne Center. I had a pair of coupons to receive $5 off an entree, so we thought we might as well give it a try.
The Monday following Christmas weekend might have been a bad call. We wandered in right after Happy Hour ended, so the front bar area was still crowded with people finishing their half-priced drinks. While none of the Mad Mex locations are reportedly very large, this one had a surprisingly small dining area, one that was packed when we came in. To the hostess’s credit, while she warned of up to a half an hour wait time, we were seated in under twenty. On the downside, we were at two-seater sandwiched in between four-person tables on either side.
Between our respective work days and the obtrusive noise of our surroundings, we needed drinks. With the holidays quickly passing, seasonal beers will soon be hard to come by, so I took advantage of the Penn St. Nickolaus offered on the draft list. Despite the lack of drink special, Wes went for a large mango margarita. I love the St. Nickolaus - it’s deep and dusky, but smooth and easy to drink. It doesn’t have the kind of seasonal draft traits I’ve become tired of: the cinnamon, the clove, the nutmeg, the overwhelming sense that you’re drinking a pie in beer form. Basically, a perfect Winter beer. As for the margarita, I’m rarely in the mood for those kind of super sweet frozen beverages. This was decently fruity, but very, very sweet. Wes nursed it throughout the meal.
Things seemed pretty backed up, but we got our appetizer quickly. The biggest drawback to Mad Mex, in my opinion, is the lack of free chips and salsa. Whatever cost saving measure this is, it’s always a little disappointing to sit down at a Mexican restaurant and not be offered chips and salsa. Even when the chips are bland and the salsa cheap. It’s just a nice courtesy that we’ve been spoiled by in the past. To have to pay for mere chips and salsa seems like a waste. So we opted for the potato taquitoes, basically tortillas stuffed with mashed potato and cheese, lightly grilled, and served with sour cream on the side. They were pleasant, but bland. A little hot sauce and sour cream spruced them up, but the filling really had no flavor to it, not to mention a unresistant texture that allowed each bite to dissolve into an unflavorful mush. It worked to hold us over, but not to whet our appetites for more.
The meal made a comeback with our entrees. Instead of the tempting gigantic burritos, I opted for the tofu tacos. Every bit of flavor and texture lacking in the taquitos appetizer was present in this dish. The Southeast Asian influence really came out with the crispy chunks of tofu which were lightly coated in a sweetish teriyaki sauce. It could have easily conflicted with more standardly Mexican-Spanish flavors of the dish, but it complemented the spicy, earthier flavors perfectly, as did the addition of bean sprouts. Tying it all together was a light lime cilantro sauce that also worked really well with the accompanying rice and beans. It was a whole lot of flavor with a whole lot of food, but the glutton in me finished nearly the whole plate. Next time I will know when to stop and ask for a box.
It feels a bit like sacrilege to visit Mad Mex and not order a burrito, so Wes willingly obliged by ordering the Chicken Mole. What he had to say: The chicken had a nice crispness to it, diced in pleasing bite sized pieces and pleasantly spiced. Portions were ample, yet not overwhelming. The sauce it was smothered in didn’t compromise the texture of the tortilla or coat my palette in salt. Overall surprisingly pleasing, albeit non challenging.
While the entrees made up for the deficiencies in the appetizer, we both had to admit that the actual dining experience was a little less than pleasant. On the plus side, our waiter, despite being fresh on the job and nervous, was very helpful and efficient, and though diners kept coming and going, he was always quick to check on us.
Also, as stated above, the prices are really a draw at Mad Mex. The meal was of higher quality than your average run-of-the-mill chain with about the same prices per entree. Even without the $5 off, we got a decent bargain for the quality and quantity of our food.
But the Scott Towne Center Mad Max suffers from a lot of the same problems that plague its sister locations. When thrown on top of the crushing crowd noise, the loud soundtrack seemed almost tauntingly unnecessary, but it made it sufficiently impossible to hear anything beyond near-shouting level.
The other problem we had with our surroundings, and this could just be because we both suffer from less than perfect eyesight, but it was terribly dark inside the restaurant. I remembered that on hot summer days, the Oakland Mad Mex and its dim, cool interior would seem like an oasis. But on a dark, cold night a dimly lit and noisy eatery offered little in the way of environmental comfort. Not only could we barely hear each other talk, we could hardly see the menus in front of us. (In addition, and this is no fault of Mad Mex, but poor Wes was blinded every time I had to take a shot of the food. He was very nice about it.)
Wes’s opinion on the environment: “The ambience at the restaurant was akin to that of a cheap pickup bar oozing with tackiness, but minus the ‘class’.” Ouch.
Come to think of it, the best visits I ever made to the Mad Mex in Oakland were mid-afternoon, just after the lunch rush, on days where I had nothing but time and energy. As far as our tastes are concerned, maybe we should stick to the place for lunch. Although the night rush atmosphere was uncomfortable, the food was definitely enough reason to give this location a second chance.