Tag Archives: mexican restaurant

Jose & Tony’s


I spent a lot of time in Chicago wistfully searching for the right dirty little Mexican restaurant in which to get my dirty little Mexican food fix. I wasn’t looking for gourmet, I wasn’t looking for upscale. I didn’t want to try Rick Bayless’s latest venture (well, okay, yes I did, but that’s not my point). I wanted street corner, hole-in-the-wall, greasy, gooey food that might be as delicious as it is potentially deadly.

One of my friends, knowing my proclivity for down and dirty Mexican grub couldn’t believe I hadn’t been to Jose & Tony’s, a combination dive bar and dive restaurant in the area. I had passed by it, certainly, but had never ventured in. Seeing as it was amidst the happiest of hours and we were both in need of a cheap drink and an even cheaper taco, he took me over there to try the place out.


This is a trying time for dives. Used to be that dives received special consideration from visitors and subsequent critics. Now that everyone gets to be a critic, slamming a place is as easy as going on Urbanspoon and writing about how terrible the food was, how cheesy the decor, how rundown and slightly unkempt a place is. In the cluttered world of online reviewing, dives are no longer held apart for their unique charms.

It’s an especially trying time for dives because they are still considered, and will probably always be considered, cool, at least in some respects. Young hipsters like dives because they bring them face to face with the common man. They also like them because they tend to be really cheap, allow smoking, and half empty.

But people are starting to ask more of dive bars and restaurants then just being half empty, smokey, and cheap. The normal, discriminating, non-hip diner got wind of the whole dive appeal and sought to understand it for his or her self. And that’s when the secret was blown: A chock full of charm as they are, many of these places serve food that is just this side of mediocre.

The dim lighting and the dingy surroundings might be okay for the place’s base clientele, but here these people had made a special trip in to try a place and all they were getting was mediocre food and stares from the regulars. A show like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives may make every place seem like a big family, but most dives have their own inherent, unstated rules for their regular customers.

A show like DDD also shows a place in the best possible light, which means that obvious attractions of a dive, like smoking, would be removed for the purposes of filming. You can’t have Guy Fieri marching into a smoke-filled bar to declare its meatballs and roast beef unbelievable. The clean-cut nature of the Food Network would simply not allow it.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off the subject. But yes, for dives, these are hard times. Only in a theoretical sense. Most of these places have owners who couldn’t give a damn about what some one-time customer has to say about their restaurant’s draft list and hamburgers. These places build a reputation on the people who come in time and time again. They don’t really need to be courting outsiders.


As for me? Well, I felt right at home. Wes ordered a Deluxe California Burrito, which came before us a gooey, gloppy mess of delicious. The sheer amount of sour cream would have grossed out my vegan partner, but I had to say, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant over use a condiment to such a delightful extreme. I noticed from a quick bite that the enchilada sauce had a little heat to it, which worked especially well with all that cool sour cream.


I ordered a bean taco in a flour tortilla and a chicken taco in a corn tortilla. There were some decent ingredients underneath the fearsome layer of shredded iceberg. The beans were maybe a tad over cooked, a little sludgy and heavy, but the chicken was surprisingly tender and flavorful. For two bucks, they weren’t going to be the freshest, best tacos, but they were certainly superior to their fast food counterpart. I got what I expected, no more, no less.

Restaurant standards are a personal issue. I personally don’t like going to most Italian restaurants, because no matter the quality, I always feel kind of ripped off (of course there are exceptions). Many people would probably not want to go to Jose & Tony’s because they would be looking for a standard of service, atmosphere, and food quality that is simply not in line with this kind of operation. If it helps to think of it as a bar with tacos, then think of it that way.

I got my greasy taco fix, I got to share a pitcher of margaritas for an insanely low price, and I got to catch up on the Women’s World Cup (blaring from a large TV in the corner). You could do a whole heck of a lot worse for a Monday evening.


Jose & Tony's on Urbanspoon

Gran Agave


Oh, what’s a diner to do when a meal leaves you feeling lackluster?

At this point, I’ve made a few visits to Gran Agave in the Homestead Waterfront, and while I have never had anything outright bad at the restaurant, there’s been very little to take away from each meal. The service has been okay. The food was okay. The price is okay. Everything is just okay, and in a city with a growing Mexican population, the last thing that will get a Mexican restaurant noticed is its achievements in the average.

I don’t relish occasional necessities to complain, especially when a place is clearly attempting to offer a standard of ingredients and preparation that far surpass the mindset behind the cuisine at their corporate brethren. But forgive me when I say that attitude is one very important factor, but aptitude cannot be underestimated. So while I admire the attempts to marry the now-standard suburban Mexican chain restaurant menu with a menu more varied and traditionally minded, I cannot help but think they’ve dropped the ball a little on the one factor that counts more than anything else: Taste.


Some things are hard to get wrong, however. The high point of my latest meal at Gran Agave were the chips (in-house made at some point, but they didn’t seem homemade to me this time) and cheese dip, a velvety, if a little thin, gooey white cheese that was flavorful but not overwhelmingly salty. The salsa is also fairly good, better than the chunky canned complimentary offerings of chain Mexican, but not quite as standout as what is served table-side at places like Cocina Mendoza (this may be a preference on my part, as I prefer salsa with less liquid and more fresh chunks of veggies, but as it was, the salsa could stand to lose a little of the sauce).


The real problem comes in with the entrees. My mother ordered a chicken enchilada and a cheese enchilada, served with refried beans and rice. To me, enchilada sauce has always come off a bit like mole’s less showy sibling. Without the chocolate and the smokiness of mole, it has to have a tangy zip and slight pop of heat for it to really stand on its own. The sauce here was bland. No heat, no smokey, heavy qualities to the flavor. The plentiful interior elements of the enchilada, the cheese, the chicken, were of good quality and preparation, but they were undermined by the enchilada sauce.


More of the sauce on my dish. It’s got to tell you something that I can’t even remember what dish I ordered. Somewhere underneath that thick layer of bland sauce is an enchilada or burrito or something. I will use my memory to instead reflect upon the dishes of equal blandness to the sauce: The refried beans.

I’m not suggesting that every dish of refried beans needs to be heart-stoppingly salty. But there’s fresh and then there’s no taste, and these had no taste. Plus, the beans are pureed to the point of gruel, thin gruel, and without even the sodium to pick up the slack, after one or two spoonfuls, the texture starts to wear the palate down. There’s just not much to distinguish what it feels like from what it tastes like.

And yet, I don’t dislike Gran Agave. I just wish they would pay a little more attention to flavorful elements of their dishes. I appreciate the menu items that showcase an attention paid to traditional meals, and I understand where that might lead to the kitchen putting more time in on the less standard items, but even a plate of refried beans should have flavor, even if it’s just from a pinch or two of salt.

The restaurant itself is pleasant enough, with a decor pleasingly free of South-of-the-Border kitsch, yet designed and laid out in an almost pseudo Southwestern, mission style. In the land of the Waterfront, where generic decor of one bar and grill becomes the generic decor of another bar and grill, the amount of attention paid to fashioning a unique interior is appreciated.

I just hope that when I make my next visit, the choice I make for my meal will be as appetite attracting.

Gran Agave on Urbanspoon

Take Out Tacos from Cocina Mendoza


It’s Lenten time once again! I don’t know what this time of year is like in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, even if you’re not remotely religious, you’re bound to notice when Lent comes around. All of a sudden fish is available in every size and preparation, from church-held Friday night fish fries to fish and mac’n’cheese specials at  nearly every bar and restaurant in the area.

One of my most frequented Mexican restaurants, Cocina Mendoza, is serving up my favorite of the Friday fish specials: Fish tacos. I didn’t have the chance to try the tacos last Spring, but struck by a need to get in on the fish fun this past Friday, the first Friday of Lent, I wandered over to the restaurant on my lunch break and grabbed a lunch special to-go.

Cocina Mendoza is tucked away inconspicuously in the Mt. Lebanon Shops. It’s not my favorite place to grab a taco – that would be Las Palmas in Brookline – but it’s still pretty terrific: fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine at decent prices for good portions. I’ve mostly taken advantage of the lunch specials, which for five or six dollars a piece resemble a full dinner portion more than a light lunch option. As I have trying in the last few months to a) save money and b) eat healthier and lighter options for lunch and dinner, I’ve not walked down to the restaurant nearly as much.

I’m glad I did this past Friday. The tacos were delicious. They were two flour tortillas wrapped around several thick slices of fish that were dressed by a fresh salsa. The whitefish was lightly floured and seasoned and fried, a thin, crisp skin giving it prominence even as it was buried under a mound of Pico de Gallo. The bite of the tomato and onion against the mildness of the fish was refreshing, as was the lack of heavier additions, such as cheese or jalapeno or beans. A completely satisfying meal, but far lighter than any of the other lunch options at Cocina Mendoza.

Like many fish specials, it was the sort of thing I wished was around all year. Then again, I suppose I’d take it for granted eventually, when the novelty and anticipation wore off completely. Better to have it contained to just this time of year, when I can look forward to that special every Friday, making this March and April trudge toward a reluctant Spring a little more joyful.

Cocina Mendoza on Urbanspoon