Friday, May 18, 2012

Shopping-Center Mexican

El Jarro de Arturo
13421 San Pedro
(281 at Bitters, on the southwest corner of the intersection)


Ajuúa Mexican Bar & Grill
11703 Huebner Road
(at Vance Jackson, in the shopping center on the north side)

El Jarro is a very traditional sort of upper-end Mexican restaurant, the sort that was exotic and a touch elegant twenty to fifty years ago. There are a dwindling number of such places still around — Los Barrios, my favourite place, is in the same class, along with La Fogata and La Fonda on Main. Most of them survive, and even thrive, by having reliably good Mexican and Tex-Mex food in a nice setting, with reasonable prices and good service. They update their menus, taking account of gradual changes in dining habits and adopting those things that won't really compromise their premise, like the eventual addition of fajitas to their offerings (a dish that, once upon a time, only their yard men and maids would consider good eating). El Jarro seems to have a different theory of success that I did not immediately perceive.

Last city inspection: April 2012
9 demerits
The interior is dark, which I suppose in the evening could pass for romantic. We, though, were there at lunch, and being Just Friends, Rick and I were not much interested in any romantic characteristics the place might offer. We were, though, interested in being able to navigate the restaurant's floor, and a few small tables inconveniently lined up in a narrow aisle (apparently because their regular locale was occupied by buffet tables) made it a little tight. There were also a number of chairs stacked up near the entrance, giving one the feeling that the restaurant was either about to move out, or had just moved in. It's a moderately large dining room, with a small raised stage to one side where, I suppose, they have music from time to time. There were tables there during our visit, though no chairs. (Hmmm... maybe those chairs by the door....) Tile from Puebla adorns some of the surfaces in the room, and the chairs have rough-woven seats that have seen better days. Fortunately, I've lost enough weight in the last few months that I didn't feel physically threatened by their tenuous integrity; but just barely.

We arrived at a moment when a sudden rush to get out had apparently developed spontaneously, and the sourfaced little man behind the cash register, who later acted as host for new arrivals, could not bring himself to acknowledge our untimely appearance. Instead we waited with more patience than the eventual experience deserved for a waiter to notice us and seat us (and a couple who had been waiting even longer). 

That same waiter returned in good time to take our orders: a Special Salad for Rick, the enchilada-and-taco buffet for me, and ice tea. He brought my tea, it not having occurred to him that I might want something to stir it with; teaspoons are customary, but I made do with a knife from one of the extra place settings on the table. Later, when it came time to get the bill, our waiter was deeply engaged in a discussion with another waiter across the room, a conversation that appeared to require a great deal of directional gestures and detailed instructions, as though they were talking about how to get through unfamiliar streets to the company picnic. This went on far longer than my already-strained patience could last.

The food was disappointing. The chips and salsa, almost always a reliable indicator of delights (or otherwise) to come, were so-so: the chips average, the salsa with a good flavour but a very watery texture.

Rick's "Special Salad" was nothing in the least special. He was served a plate of mixed greens with watery artichoke hearts and shavings of queso fresco (instead of the gorgonzola the menu promised) and a few pumpkin seeds. He thought the vinaigrette dressing was too salty; I tried it myself, and though I'm abnormally sensitive to salt I thought it was fine.

The enchilada-and-taco buffet had highs and lows. Normally, in my weight-watching mode, I would avoid a buffet entirely, but it looked good as we walked past and the price, $7.95, seemed quite reasonable. And it was, though the food looked better than it was. The best of it was the chicken fajita taco filling, which consisted of large, moist chunks of white meat with peppers and onions and good seasoning. The worst was the fideo loco soup, which was a nearly flavourless broth filled with too-long strands of spaghetti (not vermicelli, and in this dish, it makes a real difference) and some overcooked vegetables. The refried beans were as liquid as the salsa, but otherwise had a good flavour; the rice was good enough. The enchiladas were red corn tortillas wrapped around thin slabs of cheddar cheese and covered with a thin, dark gravy such as your abuela would serve when she was mad at your mother. There were flour tortillas and corn taco shells for you to choose from; I didn't try the hard shells, but the flour tortillas were variable. The first one was quite good, the next not. Pico, sour cream, lettuce and tomato were there to dress your creation with. 

All in all, I'd judge that El Jarro de Arturo is a place in need of some new thinking about what people want when they go out to eat. A little adjustment to the lighting, the menu and the staff's attitude would pay dividends, I suspect. Until I hear, though, that changes have been made, I won't be going back myself.
El Jarro de Arturo on Urbanspoon

Last city inspection: December 2011
17 demerits
Ajuúa, on the north-west side, is a much more current sort of slightly-upscale Mexican restaurant. A modest space in a modest shopping center that also features a kolache bakery and a Chinese restaurant, Ajuúa is relatively new, with attractive décor of a much more contemporary sort. We still had to wait an inordinate amount of time upon our arrival, nearly half an hour after the day's opening, but this time it was because everyone on the staff (except the bartender) was in a meeting somewhere out of sight. But once we were seated the level of service quickly rose beyond minimal expectations, and had there been someone to greet us when we arrived I'm sure I would have gone with a four-chili-pepper rating. There was plenty of staff to handle the lunch rush we seemed to have started; our waiters, and the ones we could observe tending to the people at nearby tables, were all excellently trained, helpful, and capable. Everyone working there knew what his job was and did it quite well.

Once again, the chips and salsa provided an accurate indication of what was to come. The tostadas were fairly light, not fresh-from-the-fryer hot but not cold or oily either. The salsa was tasty, with a noticeable taste of cilantro that, remarkably, didn't overpower the other flavours in the mixture. And it had a very good texture, and stayed obediently on the chip. 

My choice for lunch (from the specials menu) was the ensalada Ajuúa, a plate of mixed greens with fajita-seasoned chicken breast. It was exquisite. There was plenty of chicken meat, all nicely seasoned and well-cooked without being the least bit dry; there was a base of Romaine lettuce enlivened with a great variety of other fresh salad ingredients, and there was an exquisite sweet poppyseed dressing that, training going out the window, I sucked down every drop of. This was preceded by what was billed on the lunch menu as a "cup" of tortilla soup: it was easily twice that much soup, and it was very good. Not, perhaps, the best in town, and I'm sure my good friend the Hankmeister could name thirty places with better (though since he relocated to Austin, his information may be somewhat dated); I can only name three, and one of those is my house; but I know there are others. 

But I digress.

Rick, on this occasion, chose the unexpected menu entry of a Cuban sandwich. What he was served was pork and turkey on a light toasted bun, with steak fries and a small portion of tossed salad (featuring that same poppyseed dressing). Who would figure, given the cultural differences, that a Mexican kitchen would whip up a really good Cuban sandwich, when the two peoples are barely on speaking terms? But they did, and while it proved an exception to the General Theory of Sandwiches,* I don't think anybody's going to be too disappointed when the thing doesn't fall apart on the plate. The steak fries were perfectly cooked, an accomplishment, it seems, in any kitchen, and the salad was, as you would expect, delicious.

Two Mexican restaurants in two suburban shopping centers within fifteen minutes of each other, yet decades, and worlds, apart. I know which one I'd pick ... if I didn't have to go outside the Loop.

Ajuua Mexican Bar n Grill on Urbanspoon

* A sandwich's quality is directly proportional to its messiness. 

1 comment:

  1. There is only one dish that I go there for and that is the Carne Asada (medium rare) with a Green Enchilada. I highly recommend it if you ever make your way back. I also suggest going in the evening on a Friday, but make a reservation.


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