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"I don't care if you liked it, at least I tried," huffed a middle-aged Mexican man with a laugh after he finished singing a Vicente Fernández ballad on Mucho Mexico's elevated karaoke stage one Friday evening. I laughed. Most of the diners in the large, basketball court-size dining room laughed. But there was a discomforting parallel between his offhand remark and Mucho Mexico itself: The restaurant doesn't really seem to care if you like the food it's serving. It tried. Sort of.
1310 N. Wayside Drive
Houston, TX 77020
Region: East End
Vuelve a la vida: $11.49
Tostadas del mar: $7.99
Filete empanizado: $12.49
Puerco rojo: $11.99
Enchiladas verdes: $10.99
Tres leches: $4.99
1310 N. Wayside Dr., 713-670-0928.
Throughout most of Mucho Mexico's nearly 40-year history, it has been known as the place to go on weekend nights for excellent Mexican and Tex-Mex food and entertaining live music, whether from norteño bands or karaoke singers. The engaging music is still intact, but the food is not. And to add insult to injury, it's difficult to escape even a standard weekday lunch for two people without shelling out at least $50. In a town known for its cheap, reliably good Tex-Mex, that's highway robbery.
Mucho Mexico reopened under new ownership last year after being briefly closed. The menu items are still the same, such as the popular Laredo Dinner with slices of fajita meat and the same creamy guacamole that the Houston Press named Best Guacamole back in 2007, but the overall quality of the food seems to have gone depressingly downhill since the change in owners. Witness one recent lunch with my friend Jay Rascoe, better known as the man behind popular local blog Guns and Tacos.
On several previous visits, a tantalizingly spread-eagled goat carcass on a spit greeted me when I walked in. I didn't see it this time, but it was on the menu so I ordered it. Rascoe ordered the carne guisada at first, only to be told the restaurant had just run out. He opted for a large bowl of menudo instead.
"Let me check on the cabrito," said the waitress. "I don't know if we have any left." At 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, it would have been the second thing the restaurant had already run out of after opening at 10 a.m. She sent another waiter over to our table after a few minutes who informed me that I had a choice of only two options from the desiccated carcass: ribs and kidneys or a leg. I opted for the tender rib meat and the kidneys, loving organ meat as I do. The cabrito was served with a bowl of bean and nopales soup and a green salad made mostly of iceberg lettuce, sans any dressing. I was uninspired by both preceding dishes, but that was nothing compared to the disappointment that washed over me when the waitress brought out the cabrito.
On the black comal sat one runty half of a rib cage, resting on a few grilled onions that looked as if they'd been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. There was almost no meat at all on the ribs. There was a kidney, but only one. And goat kidneys — roughly the size of a golf ball — don't make a meal. I cut it in half and gave part to Rascoe, feeling suddenly like Mickey Mouse cutting a single bean in half in an old Disney cartoon short that involved Donald Duck going completely insane from hunger, then trying to kill and eat Mickey and Goofy. Cartoons just aren't the same these days.
I scraped enough meat off the rib cage to make one small taco that — along with the soggy onions and radish slices off my salad — made something about the size of a taquito. It was shameful. And for $25, I wanted to send the entire embarrassment back and demand a new meal. But I didn't. Instead, I turned to Rascoe and asked how he liked his menudo.
"There isn't any hominy in here," was his reply as he poked through the dark red soup with his spoon. "Oh, wait. Here's some." Three pieces of hominy swam lazily to the surface. "It's okay," he smiled reassuringly. "Hominy is just filler anyway, right?" I tasted the menudo, which — aside from the lack of hominy — looked good. It was certainly passable, but not the best I'd ever had. Too few pieces of tripe and too much broth, which itself was overwhelmingly fatty.
The conversation turned quickly to our own favorite menudo joints in town. Mine is Pico's Mex-Mex, to which Rascoe gave a thoughtful nod. "I prefer eating menudo in places where it doesn't look like you should be eating anything at all," he laughed. "Heads down on the table, people looking like they're passed out, places with hidden rear entrances off Chimney Rock." Rascoe used to make a sport of eating menudo from a different place every weekend, long before he took up food blogging. His favorite to this day surprised me as much as my choice surprised him: "La Mexicana," he said with a knowing smile.
"I can walk there!" came my astonished response. La Mex's breakfast tacos have long been a staple, but every time I've branched out from that point I've gotten burned. Menudo is one of the items I'd yet to try there. That was one weekend meal already settled on a Tuesday afternoon.
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