"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.
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.
We tried to salvage the rather mediocre meal by ordering desserts. Mucho Mexico also runs the bakery next door — it takes up the entire strip center along this portion of Wayside, in fact — and the tortillas and pastries have always been good, especially the gingery marranitos. But the desserts being served in the restaurant might as well be from a different bakery entirely. Tres leches here was a vanilla layer cake sandwiching frozen strawberries in a gooey, overly sweet sauce. No milk — let alone three kinds of milk — seemed to be present in the cake at all. And the flan tasted like stale refrigerator air, topped almost insultingly with a hard maraschino cherry. We ate two bites of each and left, spending $60 in the process (including tip). I was hungry again by 3 p.m.
One of the things Mucho Mexico is known for as much as its festive atmosphere is its seafood, which many people choose to eat in the brightly hued oyster bar to the left of the main (rather dark) dining room. When the state waters open back up in mid-November, I suspect the oyster bar will be a much livelier place than it has been lately. That is, if the oyster beds in Texas are able to support the demand from diners now that Louisiana's oyster beds have been put through the paces after the Gulf oil spill. Robb Walsh reports that the current cold snap has allowed the oysters themselves to become fatter and plumper, but it doesn't make up for the fact that there just aren't as many this season.
Seafood is one of the only things Mucho Mexico is currently doing right. The classic vuelve a la vida cocktail of shrimp, fish and octopus is currently missing those oysters, but it's still delicious. The tomato-based sauce at Mucho Mexico is much more watery than I've encountered in other Mexican joints, but there's something to that warmly spiced sauce with hints of tamarind and cinnamon that makes me want to bottle it and use it as liberally as possible: as a marinade, as a salad dressing, as a sauce for grilled seafood, as a replacement for the water in my Ozarka bottle. It's mystifyingly good.
The same sauce coats the seafood in the tostadas del mar, which are a much less expensive way to enjoy the same seafood you'll find in the vuelve a la vida. Instead of being served in a large margarita glass, the mixture is scooped onto corn tortilla rounds and topped with slices of avocado. It's messier, for sure, but I'm willing to put up with that when I'm saving an amount of money equivalent to one Negra Modelo.
For the less adventurous or the young children in your party, the filete empanizado (breaded and fried fish) is another decent option, although it can verge on too greasy. Served with frozen, tasteless French fries for nearly $13, it's one of the less offensive instances of overpricing on the menu. I can't help but wonder if my attitude toward the fried fish would be more forgiving if it were in a more reasonable price range, though.
On one Friday evening, my dining companion and I sat enraptured by the karaoke singer onstage. She looked like a slightly tarty version of children's singer Tatiana and sang like Selena. She joked with the audience between sets, teasing one stereotypically Tejano man about the size of his hat and trying to get an old abuelita to join her onstage. She was a sheer joy to watch, and that was what most people in the half-empty dining room were doing that night.
Evenings are when Mucho Mexico is the busiest, and those crowds seem to be predominantly composed of multigenerational families taking Grandma and the kids to a nice, sit-down dinner. And half the allure seems to be the live music, because it certainly can't be the underwhelming food. It reminds me, in that sense, of driving to a casino across the state border for the entertainment and the sheer desire to get out of the house. Who cares if the food is good? They have strong drinks and you're not sitting at home.
That night, the queso that came out was so thick and artificially yellow that we didn't eat more than a few bites of the gloppy stuff, quickly setting it aside for the comparably good salsas. My puerco rojo was decent, served in a thick and creamy chile ancho sauce that tasted like mole without the cacao. The rice and beans weren't worth touching, though, so I just ate my pork on its own. I would have happily wrapped up the tender pork pieces in some flour tortillas, except that all the tortillas delivered to the table that evening were hard and brittle. They were old tortillas that had dried out, obviously, and wouldn't fold without shattering into several pieces.
My dining companion's enchiladas verdes, on the other hand, were inedible. As advertised on the menu, the enchiladas come with a tomatillo and avocado sauce and white cheese. On his plate, however, they came topped with a neon-green sauce that looked and tasted as if the kitchen had pureed a can of Herdez salsa verde with an entire cup of lime juice. You expect a tomatillo sauce to be tart, but not acidic and jaw-achingly sour. Any possible hint of avocado was lost in the overpowering citrus taste; it was impossible to eat, like trying to chew a mouthful of Sour Patch Kids. My friend scraped the sauce off the enchiladas and topped them instead with some of the sweet, tomato-y, warm salsa that comes with the chips, eating them grudgingly. I think the frozen margaritas helped take the edge off.
Despite all of this, the evening wasn't a total loss. The karaoke singer was taking requests, and I had a fistful of dollar bills that I was planning to use to get her to sing an old Shakira favorite, "Estoy Aquí." We ignored our subpar food and concentrated on enjoying the cold margaritas and the entertainment onstage, just like everyone else.
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