Friday, March 18, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing, Too Much of a Bad Thing

Chris Madrid's
1900 Blanco Road

When I first moved back to San Antonio twenty years ago, all of my new neighbours raved about Chris Madrid's. Even back then, it was a local institution, everybody's favourite burger place in the neighbourhood. I went there a couple of times and wasn't impressed. Actually, less than that: on my first visit, I thought my burger was gritty and overcooked, as though it had been dropped on the floor and not brushed off before being served. I tried the place a couple more times, convinced that there was something about it that I wasn't seeing. How could I not like a place that was so widely popular?

Never figured that one out, unless one takes as literally true the stock line about underestimating the general public. So for fifteen years or so, I've just avoided Chris Madrid's. Lots of people liked it; I didn't.

So I thought, after all these years of its continued popularity, it was time to give it another chance to impress.

I went with a friend who, like me, had never found much to be impressed by at Chris Madrid's. The first thing I noticed was that the outside patio was smaller, and the inside dining room larger. I guess that in a city where Winter is a Thursday in February, that's probably an improvement. They've closed off the old corner entrance, so now you enter from the patio, and have to wind your way through a narrow path blocked by chairs of the morbidly obese to the counter by the old corner entrance. Place your order at the register and receive one of those radio-activated vibrators, which will let you know you're order's ready back at the pick-up counter. We split an order of the macho nachos; he ordered the bacon cheeseburger (I forget what clever name they have for it, but a rose by any other name...) and I got the jalapeño cheeseburger.

The employees' names and faces have changed, but otherwise it's the same group of vaguely disinterested, somewhat distracted people, who give you the impression that they would already be at some more important place if you didn't have to have your goddam hamburger. I'll make an exception for the older woman who ran one of the registers; she, alone among the half-dozen or so staff I spoke to, evinced some interest in customer satisfaction and comfort. But the rest of them were like college students during finals week after a semester of bingeing.

The nachos came out first. These consisted of perfectly flat tostada quarters layered with refritos, picadillo and cheese; jalapeños come on the side, in insufficient quantity. The refritos are billed on the menu as something like an old family recipe. I found them runny, which, compared to dry, is the lesser of two evils when it's a side dish to your enchiladas; but as the base layer for a nacho it makes for a soggy tostada. Add to that some well-seasoned picadillo that is made from the cheapest ground beef and not drained at all, so that the grease from the meat runs off the sides and soaks into the tostada. Cheese is applied on top, in generous but not excessive quantity. Making this combination of ingredients taste bad would be a feat beyond the capacity of any hung-over, dragged-out crackhead, and I'm relieved to report that the taste was, naturally, pretty good. Messy as hell, and eating them required that I metaphorically gag and bind the health-conscious part of my inner self (which, I can tell by a glance in the mirror, has never been overly assertive anyway), but yes, they tasted pretty good.

My friend liked his bacon-cheeseburger. Naturally, I couldn't let him get away with just the bare comment, "It's good." I quizzed him on what he liked about it, and how he would rate it. His comments were, essentially, that (A) it was extremely greasy, (B) there was a whole lotta cheese, and (C) the bacon wasn't cooked enough. He gave it four chili peppers out of five. I thought he was being generous, but then excessive grease and cheese don't really count as good things in my way of thinking.

There were plenty of jalapeños on my burger, and way too much cheese. Cheese oozed out the sides of the large bun like pahoehoe forming new islands on a paper-plate sea. Good quality cheddar cheese, but still way too much of it. The veggies that dressed the burger were reasonably fresh, machine-chopped (and probably ordered from a service) lettuce, tomato and onion in roughly equal quantities. The bun was oiled and might have been trotted past a grill, but there was little evidence of it. The meat patty was as large as the bun, and I swear that, overall, the sandwich is the greasiest burger I've ever had in nearly a half-century of burger-testing. Four chili peppers? I'd give it half that.

(And now that the experience of dining at Chris Madrid's is a few hours behind me, I'm beginning to suspect that the food was heavy on the salt, too: I'm as thirsty now as if I'd eaten half a Pizza Hut pizza, and starting to feel bloated.)

Last city inspection: July 2010
18 demerits
Inside, where it's air-conditioned, there are nice tile-topped tables with a southwestern feel, and lots of noise, in kind of a happy, welcoming way -- not the overbearing kind of loudness you find in so many late-model eateries. My only gripe about the interior is with the one-hole restroom: it's insufficient for a place this busy at 2:30 in the afternoon; I can't imagine what the line is like when the beer starts through the college students in the evening.

Outside are a number of picnic tables, about 18, six with umbrellas. It's only March, the temperature's only in the 80s, yet if you're not in the shade you start sweating very quickly. But in the evenings, when, I reckon, Chris Madrid's does most of its business, you don't have the sun to contend with, only the flies (which even now are barely tolerable; strange, I haven't seen any at home yet, and I don't live that far away) and the breeze. And pardon me for saying it, but any restaurant that's going to serve food that greasy and messy ought to offer cloth napkins that won't blow away in a light breeze, instead of those uber-cheap paper things from the bright red dispenser. If only for the environmental impact.

I have to pause here, and go drink another glass of water. I feel like Tantalus in the pool.

After visiting Chris Madrid's today, and again at a loss to understand how it can remain so popular for so long, I started asking people: Did they like it? If so, why, specifically? There are two reasons given, both of which echoed my companion at lunch: They like the grease, and they like the exuberance of cheese.

I'm sorry, but enough is enough, and Chris Madrid's is serving up way too much of each.

Chris Madrid's Nachos and Burgers on Urbanspoon


  1. AnonymousMay 16, 2011

    Wow. I think this might be the best restaurant review I've ever read. Too bad you didn't like the place (I do.) But it's funny in a kinda sarcastic way and dead on about the service . Good job!

  2. Well, thanks ... I think.

    (I prefer to think of my tone as caustic when I don't like something, reserved when I do; and while I never will rise to his level, in my dreams I'm compared favourably with Alexander Woollcott, the brilliant Broadway critic in the first half of the 20th Century. Sadly, I will probably never say anything as insightful as "A hick town is one where there is no place to go where you shouldn't go," or, arguably his most famous line, "All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening.")

  3. AnonymousMay 17, 2011

    You got that right about the employees. I like the food tho.

  4. I love cheese. I love hamburgers. I think this place is gross and I openly say so. It doesn't make me popular with locals. I actually think the cheese they use is a pretty big turn off, it's just greasy and disgusting. I've never had a good experience with the food, and I've eaten there three times over the course of 10 years. Each time is pretty gross. I'll not go again.


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