Sunday, May 16, 2010

Amigos Siempre?

I am a Mexican food addict. I could eat Mexican food every day and never tire of it. Authentic Mexican, Tex-Mex, burrito places. I love it all. Southern Colorado, where I grew up, has a very large Hispanic population, and Mexican restaurants abound. My fondness for Mexican food started early, when my parents would take me to La Cocina. I remember La Cocina being a very 1970’s restaurant, with carpeting and old sewing machine cabinets for tables. I also remember the sopapillas. Pillowy squares of dough, served straight from the fryer, with honey to pour inside them. If I do make it to Heaven, I hope it’s just like La Cocina. 70’s décor and all.

El Amigo is the “#1 Mexican restaurant in Kannapolis”, and they have the newspaper clippings to prove it. Why would I not want to eat there? They must have some spectacular food! I know I have high expectations—rice and beans are the first foods I remember eating (unless you count the lollipop that I had at my parents’ wedding). I try to put all of this aside and gauge the food on its own merit. Our visit on Saturday marked the second time that I’ve been to El Amigo. They seem to do a healthy business. I go past El Amigo regularly and have never seen an empty parking lot, even in the middle of the day. That’s a good sign! As always, my trusty sidekick, LA, was with me. I don’t remember the food from our first visit. It was good enough, but nothing stood out. What we both remember is LA taking a drink of his iced tea and our waiter snatching it out of his hand in order to refill it. When we left, the waiter waved and called out, “Good-bye, amigos!” Tea-snatching aside, it was good experience and we enjoyed being considered amigos.

El Amigo provides a comfortable and fun atmosphere, with murals and architectural details to remind you that you are in a Mexican restaurant. As soon as you are seated, the chips and salsa arrive. Our chips were still hot from the fryer. The salsa tastes similar to that at most other Mexican restaurants. My theory holds that there is only one salsa recipe and all Mexican restaurants share it. I ordered the queso fundido to get us started. In my heart, I know that I need to allow the queso to sit a few minutes to cool down enough so that it doesn’t run straight off the chip, but my mind refuses to acknowledge this information. LA and I both dug into it as though we hadn’t eaten in days and promptly dripped queso fundido everywhere. I’ve seen multiple recipes for queso fundido, involving fresh chiles, various cheeses, or no sausage. My personal favorite is the type served at El Amigo: a bowl of melted Mexican cheese, brimming with chorizo, with a layer of copper-colored grease floating on top. You can feel your arteries clogging a little more with each bite, but it is too good to stop. El Amigo’s was a bit salty, which I ascribe to the chorizo used. LA’s first bite garnered the comment, “It tastes like pepperoni gravy. Don’t ask.” I heeded the advice, although I was secretly curious about the pepperoni gravy experiment.

After only a few dips, even before the queso was allowed time to reach the optimum consistency, our entrees arrived. I prefer having a bit more time between appetizer and entrée, but I will always pick food arriving too soon over having to wait for it. LA was insistent upon ordering a quesadilla, but when asked by the waiter what he wanted, he ordered chicken enchiladas. He got two enchiladas in a “ranchero” sauce, with refried beans and rice on the side. The ranchero sauce is a red sauce more commonly known to gringos like you and me as “enchilada sauce”. I didn’t give it much thought until he asked me if I wanted a bite, warning me that they were “bland”. These were cheese enchiladas that were topped with chicken and smothered in red sauce. Different than what I had ever seen before, but I’m an open-minded person. LA’s assessment hit the nail on the head. They were bland. He was also quite convinced that the chicken was from a can, but I was unable to form a full opinion on that subject. While it is true that the chicken didn’t have much flavor, I chalked it up to poaching and a lack of seasoning.

I ordered what the menu called the “BTO California”. Based on the description, I correctly assumed that it was a burrito. I ordered it with the beef, incorrectly assuming that it would be ground beef. The BTO California consisted of a large tortilla filled with rice, refried beans, guacamole, and strips of grilled steak, smothered in white cheese sauce. Basically it was the queso minus the fundido. The steak was very tender, leaving me quite happy that I had made an incorrect assumption when ordering. My burrito had much more flavor than did LA’s enchiladas, owing mostly to the well-cooked and -seasoned steak. I offered LA a bite of it, but, upon hearing the word “guacamole”, he declined. The portions are large, even for the lunch specials. I took half of my burrito home with me (smothered in the extra queso fundido. Is there such a thing as too much cheese?).

My greatest complaints about El Amigo were not with the food or the atmosphere, but with the service. We were seated promptly, our food came out quickly, and our glasses stayed full. All good. But small things add up. Our waiter had a lip ring, which he kept biting. The constant lip biting was a source of great irritation to my dining companion, who self-admittedly looked like an “escaped mental patient”. The waiter splashed LA with tea while refilling the glasses and seemed quite put out when I asked for separate checks. The impression left with both of us was that our waiter did not like his job. While entering the restroom, I had to hold the door for a server who was exiting. I was opening the door and about to step through when she brushed past me, bumping into my shoulder. In my restaurant years, it was an expectation that staff would hold the door for the customers and not vice versa. Maybe I’m old-fashioned that way. LA said that he would not go back to El Amigo because of the food. The food is average or a little better, but it is the service that will keep me from returning. We didn’t even get a “Good-bye, amigos” when we left. I guess the friendship is over.

El Amigo is located at 1776 S. Cannon Blvd in Kannapolis.

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