I love Mexican food. In fact, I love it so much that I keep getting suckered into eating at “Mexican” restaurants with about as many Mexicans as there are Peugeot dealerships in Alabama. I’ve patronized “Mexican” restaurants in places like Newfoundland, Big Fork, Montana, Budapest and Macedonia in order to have a break from the monotony of the local cuisine and because I love Mexican food. But my experiences have ranged from appalling to mediocre.
Yet somehow I never learn my lesson and yesterday I found myself having lunch at Picasso, a Mexican restaurant on the Greek island of Naxos that claims to cook “extraordinary Mexican food.” After nearly a month in Greece, eating out at Greek places almost every day, I practically have skewers of souvlaki growing out of my ears, so when I read in the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands that this place had “world class” Mexican food, I wanted very much to believe it.The place also has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, though in fairness, most of those folks are European and, let’s face it, most Europeans wouldn’t know a good burrito if it smacked them in the face. Folks, we’re talking about a “Mexican” restaurant that plays flamenco music, is named after a Spanish painter and is owned by a Greek guy. I should have known better.
We started out with a plate of chips and salsa, which cost the equivalent of $5.35, or about what I’m used to paying for a burrito at home in a hole-in-the-wall type place. Chips and salsa should be free, but if you’re going to charge for it, it had better be damn good and this wasn’t – it was just a big blob of massive chunks of tomato with some other stuff thrown in.
My wife and I both ordered enchiladas and the first thing I noticed when it arrived was that there were no enchiladas; there was just an enchilada, as in one, which looked suspiciously like a burrito. It had no sauce on top, but rather just some hunks of tomato inside the thing. It was completely dry and flavorless, and cost the equivalent of $15. It came with a tiny side of rice and beans that was actually a pile of rice with about six or seven lonely little black beans sprinkled inside.
But as aggressively mediocre as that experience was, it wasn’t my worst Mexican meal ever – not by a long shot. In fact, I’ve been to at least three other “Mexican” restaurants around the world that were significantly worse. Once, my wife and I convinced ourselves that we should try a “Mexican” restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one of the whitest, least Mexican places on earth, based on the strength of a magazine article posted outside the place.
The place had been named the best Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland by a local magazine, but we later found out that it was also the only Mexican restaurant in Newfoundland, which, at least in my eyes, diminished the stature of the award just a touch. We had to explain to the waitress, who, in fairness to her, said it was her first day on the job, what the difference between nachos and chips and salsa was.
After about an hour wait, she brought us a couple of burritos that looked like someone had vomited on them, and for all we know, perhaps someone had (likely another diner).
We lived in Macedonia for two years, about a decade ago, and there was a sad little “Mexican” restaurant in a strip mall in the Kapistec neighborhood that served Doritos and had no real tortillas or anything else resembling “Mexican” food. I’m quite certain we were the only patrons they ever had and we only went there occasionally just to have a laugh.
But if I had to give an award for worst Mexican restaurant it would go to a place I was almost thrown out of a couple years ago – an all-gringo “Mexican” place in Big Fork, Montana, near Glacier National Park. I ordered an enchilada-style burrito with red sauce on it for takeaway and it was easily the most revolting dish I’ve ever seen in my life.
It was absolutely swimming in a nasty ketchup-like red sauce, and even after I drained the Styrofoam container into the toilet, the tortilla itself was disgustingly wet and soggy. The chicken was grisly, dark meat and after two bites, I just couldn’t do it. I brought it back, more just to let them know how bad it was than to secure a refund, but when the young lady gently insisted I try something else, I acquiesced.
I sat and waited a half hour for them to make me some fajitas and then when they were ready, the young lady wanted to charge me for both the burrito and the fajitas, albeit with a 50 percent discount on the burrito. I took one look at the dodgy looking fajitas and told her no thanks, and then the owner came out and berated me.
“We’ve been in business for seven years and you’re only the third person that’s sent a dish back,” he yelled. “Now if you don’t like our food you can just get the hell out of here!”
And he was serious too! I left a negative review for the restaurant on Trip Advisor, and the owner sent me a private message stating that he was “sorry, very sorry.” It was an interesting approach to customer service, to say the least.
Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m a hardcore foodie snob, who only likes the very best, most authentic Mexican food. I’m actually not that picky; in fact, I love eating out in Mexico, but I also like the chain burrito joints like Baja Fresh, Chipotle and so on.
After this latest Mexican food debacle in Greece, I have a new rule of thumb: if you’re looking for good Mexican food, take a look around. Are there any Mexican people within a 100-mile radius? No? Well then, why they hell are you eating in a “Mexican” restaurant? There are some non-Mexicans capable of making great Mexican food and there are some Mexicans who can’t cook to save their lives, but from now on, I’ll stick to the local cuisine wherever I am – no matter how tiresome it may be.
UPDATE 6/21: Today I passed a “Mexican” restaurant in Santorini called Senor Zorbas, which advertised All You Can Eat BBQ Ribs. And I didn’t even stop, except to take this photo. Now that’s progress.