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.