On the corner of Main and West 3rd Street sits a restaurant which has gone through somewhat of a cultural identity crisis the past year, transitioning from Japanese take out to American Steakhouse and now “traditional homemade” Mexican cuisine.
Welcome to Taco Palace.
I walked in at 8 p.m. on a Monday night after hearing a couple positive reviews from neighbors in my apartment complex. Having been formerly employed at a Mexican restaurant, I expected to arrive to a few groups scattered throughout the dining room and some sort of bachata music playing in the background.
Instead, with an empty stomach and a craving for something spicy, I walked through the doors and into a lukewarm atmosphere.
The entire ambiance of the restaurant is a bit befuddling, the walls are a deep maroon(ish) color, tarnished from the years that the dining room co-functioned as a dance floor on Tuesday and Thursday nights to local college students. The floors undoubtedly, have met the same fate.
Sombreros, which hang sparsely on only two of the walls, act as the only visual indicator that you are in a Mexican restaurant.
An electronic juke box, which was idle throughout the entirety of my meal, hangs on the back wall that leads out to the currently unoccupied bar area.
An older woman, who remained silent as I walked through the door, led me to my table offering nothing, but a quick smile before she placed a menu in front of me and quietly walked away.
Aside from a group of four girls sitting in the corner and a man eating alone, I was the only guest.
You could practically hear the silence echo through the near empty dining room, aside from the occasional clanging of pans coming from the kitchen.
I am a firm believe that there are a few sure things you can base the quality of any Mexican or Mexican-inspired restaurant by: the chips and salsa, rice and beans, tacos, and my personal favorite, the horchata.
My server (who never did give her name) arrived at the table shortly after I sat down and took my drink order.
While I waited for her to return, I scoured the menu, excited for a range of choices on a six page menu, but instead, I was given two options, “special tacos,” which are not actually all that special; meat (beef, pork, steak or barbeque), cheese, lettuce and tomato) or ‘corn tortilla tacos,’ which are virtually the same thing – with a different shell.
By the time my server returned, and I settled on the steak “special tacos” ($9) and a side of rice and beans ($1.50), I was more than ready to start on the chips and salsa.
Guests receive a generous bowl of what can be best described as chilled tomato soup with a dash of hot sauce. The chips being both semi-stale and cold, possibly because the AC was blowing like it is still mid-July, did not do much to pick up the slack. Strike one.
My waitress returned about 10 minutes later with three tortillas filled with lettuce and tomatoes, and what I eyeballed to be about a spoonful of diced steak in each.
The tacos themselves were not particularly bad, that is if having actual flavor is not a characteristic of food that you value. Being one of those people, after picking off half a head of lettuce and systematically tapping sour cream from the cup (since I was never given silverware, despite having asked for it) onto the tacos, I was able to finish them almost enjoyably. Strike two.
Bobby, a friend who accompanied me, finally received his food once I was finished with mine. He chose the chicken wings and fries, a peculiar choice for a Mexican restaurant, which made his impending dissatisfaction unsurprising.
“You know how they say never order chicken wings at a Mexican restaurant? Well it’s true,” Bobby said.
Just as I was ready to abandon all hope for my experience, my waitress handed me a cup of the most heavenly horchata I had ever tried, which tasted as though it was made with the love of a thousand abuelas. I would return for this reason, and this reason alone.
While the service was friendly, San Jose down the street offers almost double the portion and flavor, at a cheaper price.