Marco's Rampant

Now that Houston restaurant entrepreneur Ghulam Bombaywala has announced plans to spread his Marco's Mexican restaurants across the nation, it behooves us to ask what manner of Tex-Mex he proposes to export in our city's name. Several visits to one of his "Totally Bueno" suburban outposts yield a discomforting answer: totally bueno this chain is not.

Provided you can endure a homely interior fitted out with fake Tiffany lamps, Spanish-colonial highback chairs, cheesy folk art and sundry shades of brown, Marco's is a decent place for a salsa-and-chips fix, however. In many deprived corners of America, that should count for something. The chips involved tend to be thin and immaculately crisp (although on occasion they verge into a deadish zone that bespeaks older, lower-temperature oil). The salsas involved constitute a clear Ninfa's homage: one a doughty red, stocked with charred bits of dried chile and zinged with plenty of cilantro; the other a paler, frothier, slightly denatured version of Ninfa's famous green sauce -- some days possessed of more tart bite than others, but always alive with that all-important cilantro.

The frozen margaritas that are the proper adjuncts to these Texas staples are surprisingly authentic at Marco's -- nicely edgy on a good day, blessedly unsweet even on a bad one, which should give America further cause for thanks. As should Marco's splendid frijoles à la charra, its pinto-bean broth infused with the smoky warmth of bacon and jalapeno.

After that, trouble. Marco's Black Angus fajitas have too much sizzle, too much salt in their Mexicana incarnation, which adds poblano peppers and onion to the mix; the portion's huge, but the meat fries on well past the point of pinkness, and only after it's rolled in a perfectly good, handmade flour tortilla does the salt factor calm down sufficiently. No doubt fajitas are the very dish with which Marco's hopes to conquer the land, but they're not quite there yet.

The Tex-Mex items are definitely not there yet. Listless guacamole, chicken-fajita nachos dumbed down with vapid chile con queso, a chalupa clumped with sticky orange cheese and ground beef relieved by only a suspicion of cumin -- these do not make happy ambassadors for our hometown. Nor do gruesomely flat, congealed refried beans, or dreadful cheese enchiladas in the Velveeta mode, or a soggy "puffed" chile con queso that is a molded fraud rather than an airy balloon. The tamales are cloaked in the same cheese goo that turns an entire combination plate into an indistinguishable mishmash. Please, Mr. Bombaywala! Back to the drawing board! This is the kind of stuff that could give Houston a bad name.

-- Alison Cook

Marco's, various locations around town.

frijoles a la charra, $1.99.

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