914 West Hildebrand
(just west of Blanco Road)
Since it opened on the edge of my neighbourhood some years ago, I've tried Fina's Kitchen probably four times, without ever being impressed. The last time was probably three years ago, well before I started writing this blog and developing a more-or-less standardized rating scale for restaurants. So I decided to give the place another chance to impress, with a more regularized standard in mind for comparison.
In an area rife with Mexican food, most of it of the mom-and-pop variety and most of it pretty good, Fina's has the distinction of being busier than any of its competitors, from what I've seen. Okay, the mediocre place with the proud banner staking its outdated (and never accurate, in my opinion) claim to have The Best Tacos In America always has a line out the door on weekend mornings, but that's only on the weekends, and I suspect that the line is populated by people who respond to fashion more than quality. And Panchito's, easily the largest local Mexican restaurant, probably does more business, but it's big enough now that it's no longer in the mom-and-pop category.
At an hour of the morning when we're accustomed to having our choice of seating, we found three empty tables at Fina's Kitchen; and two of them were unready for new occupants. The parking lot, too, was all but full, with new arrivals having to wait for a car to vacate a spot. Clearly something draws people to Fina's Kitchen, something not observed on previous visits.
|Last city inspection: January 2011|
It's not the food. The food is merely ordinary, run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex from chips to check. The salsa looks, smells and tastes like Pace Medium straight from the bottle — not bad stuff, if you're dining in Lansing or Memphis, but in this town we rightly expect more artistry than that. The chips were on the thick side, not at all greasy but not at all hot, as though they, too, were out of a vendor's pack. Again, they weren't bad, but they weren't what we expect around here.
The coffee was good; the tortillas, both corn and flour, were, too, but there was nothing the slightest bit exceptional about them. The machacado was tasty but had an odd pablum-like texture, as though the meat had been finely chopped instead of properly shredded. The mélange of egg and vegetables was nicely prepared, keeping the overall product from being thoroughly uninteresting. The chilaquiles, though, were not saved from that fate. They lacked the exquisite characteristics that long ago made the dish my favourite. There was no cheese, for one thing, and too many warmed-over tortilla chips, of the same variety that had been served us while we waited for our food. The picadillo taco filling looked good, with nice chunks of potato and some tomato mixed in, but there seems to have been no seasoning applied. It was just ground beef. Likewise, the beef fajita filling: the right meat was there, in adequate quantity, and grilled to a pretty good degree of done-ness, just missing that hint of crunchy edge that makes a fajita special. But there seemed to be no seasoning. It was bland.
For a place as busy as Fina's, it's a testament to the competence of the staff that they get by with only two waitresses, and one busgirl. I thought surely a place like this would have to have at least one more waiter, but no, their staffing plan calls for just the two overworked women we saw this morning. They did all they could to keep the customers happy, and did a fine job of it, but we still ended up waiting nearly 20 minutes for our orders. If you're going to skimp on floor help, it'd make sense to skimp on kitchen help, too, and orders emerge from Fina's kitchen at a pace attuned to the excessive demands on the waitresses. Maybe the management spent so much on its admittedly attractive dining room that it can't afford to hire that third waiter that their business seems to demand. I don't know what their thought process is, I'm just guessing based on first observation.
Or maybe it's because Fina's prices are low. A machacado taco, which will run me $1.80 on average, is only $1.45 at Fina's; a chilaquile taco, also normally around $1.80, is $1.50 here. Coffee service is slightly below average cost, too. Pennies, yes, but it adds up. Being the miserly curmudgeon that I am, I'd have to say that if I were to go back to Fina's Kitchen, it'd be because their prices are about 20% below the local norm; and as long as the food's reasonably good (which it is), that's what I consider a bargain.