Bland am­bi­tion

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Casey Sanchez

At Felipe’s Tacos, you can’t help but feel that the em­ploy­ees go home af­ter work and cook meals far more full of life and taste than those they serve at their res­tau­rant. “Fresh, Healthy and Au­then­tic” is the res­tau­rant’s motto, but in re­al­ity it serves a fla­vor­less merry-go-round of grilled beef and chicken and rice and beans, re­ar­ranged in life­less com­bi­na­tions.

Con­sider the corn tor­tillas. In­stead of be­ing crisped on a grill top to bring out the fla­vor of the corn masa, they are steamed in­side alu­minum foil — they emerge tast­ing and feel­ing like earth-col­ored nap­kins. It’s no small over­sight, given that roughly half the menu is built around corn tor­tillas. The salsa bar suf­fers the same fate. While the pico de gallo is ul­tra­fresh, it is so spice­less that it might be bet­ter de­scribed as tomato-onion salad. The other spicier green and red sal­sas avail­able, with their heady vine­gar taste, ap­peared to come from com­mer­cial bot­tles.

There is a choice of three fill­ings with the tacos — beef, chicken, and pork al pas­tor (mar­i­nated in chile and slow cooked). Un­for­tu­nately, the beef and chicken tasted al­most in­ter­change­able while the al pas­tor was un­usu­ally bland for some­thing slow-cooked and mar­i­nated. The “machaca plate” is a gi­ant serv­ing of shred­ded beef cov­ered with melted yel­low Amer­i­can cheese — the op­po­site of food that is fresh, healthy, and au­then­tic.

As for drinks, this place has a strange se­lec­tion. The cooler is heav­ily stocked with caf­feinated en­ergy drinks and bot­tles of non­al­co­holic beer. (Felipe’s is the only res­tau­rant I have ever been to with two neon O’Doul’s signs in the win­dow.) I opted for a freshly made limeade and found it to be heav­ily wa­tered down. It took a few sugar pack­ets to make it taste like any­thing at all.

On a re­turn visit, we scrapped the tacos and the combo plates for bur­ri­tos and na­chos. The na­chos seemed like some­thing any­one could whip up in their own kitchen — chips laden with re­fried beans, more Amer­i­can cheese, and sour cream. A veg­e­tar­ian bur­rito was an equally unimag­i­na­tive con­tainer of cheese, let­tuce, avo­cado, and beans. The one high­light was the que­sadil­las. Though they were only made of cheese and avo­cado, it was de­li­cious to taste tor­tillas that were, at last, crisped and golden brown. It was like be­ing thank­ful for fi­nally be­ing served prop­erly but­tered toast.

If it weren’t for the food, this res­tau­rant would do well, be­cause of its low prices and at­ten­tion to cus­tomers. On both vis­its, the ser­vice was warm and friendly. The owner came by our ta­ble each time to check on us. While I couldn’t say I was en­joy­ing the meal, it made me won­der about the many other pa­trons in the res­tau­rant who so clearly rel­ished their combo plat­ters. I can only haz­ard a guess that they are trans­planted South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans, averse to New Mex­ico green chile, and long ac­cus­tomed to the bland, hy­brid Mex­i­can Amer­i­can food that is pop­u­lar where they once lived.

At clos­ing time, the ’80s soft-rock ra­dio is switched off for Mex­i­can norteño mu­sic. Some em­ploy­ees clean while oth­ers take lunch, putting to­gether plates of beef and chicken with minced onions, ci­lantro, and lime. In their down­time, they seem to be try­ing to as­sem­ble the au­then­tic fare that is not served dur­ing op­er­at­ing hours. Many eth­nic restau­rants of­fer menus of Amer­i­can­ized fa­vorites and more au­then­tic re­gional op­tions. It’s a shame Felipe’s Tacos hasn’t had the courage to try the same.

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