Beware the nachos of Old Chicago

I went to Old Chicago under the assumption that the nachos would suck.

I just felt in being truthful right up front. It had been four or five years, and the last time I had the OC nachos, they hadn’t been good. Not really even close to good. But as a nacho aficionado, I felt I would give them another try. At least 1200 days had passed, plenty of time for the cooks to improve their nachos since my last experience there. Surely someone would have figured out their nachos were subpar and resolve that problem.

Nachos at Old Chicago

Nachos at Old Chicago

We’ll start slow. Let’s talk about the salsa. I couldn’t figure out if I was accidently given pizza sauce, or it was just bad salsa, or some bastardized, unholy combination of the two. I fear the latter, but it didn’t take long to figure out the bowl of red in the middle of the plate was something to be avoided. Flanking the bowl of evil  were two big globs of sour cream. Certainly enough to get me through my meal – much appreciated. Those globs completely covered a pair of chips, but as it turns out, two fewer chips on the plate was a blessing.

After much experimenting, I found that the best combination of ingredients were chips with cheese. That’s it. No beans, no meat, certainly no salsa. Because the cheese was the best part of the who meal. (Well, technically, the two pints of Two-Hearted were the best, but let’s stick with the food.) The cheese has a bit of seasoning that gave it a very mild, spicy flavor, and the chips were crispy. And I can’t fault them for volume – I ended up not finishing them, though only part of that was the amount of food.

Old Chicago charges $2 to put ground beef on their nachos. They should default to putting it on, and charge $2 to take it off. That was some of the blandest ground beef I have tasted. Add that to the equally bland black beans, and you have the making of a truly below average set of nachos. Really, it was disappointing all the way around. There were some vegetables, but they couldn’t make a mark is the badness that was the beef. Somehow, some green peppers snuck onto my plate, continuing the freefall of nacho quality.

So here is my advice: Order nothing with the word “Nacho” in it at Old Chicago. Take the $10 you would have spent on nachos and put it towards something they do well, like pizza. Or beer.

El Potrero, Owosso

I learned a couple of things when I visited El Potrero in Owosso, but the most valuable thing I learned is that when someone asks you if you want a Patron margarita, you say no. Because, at least at El Potrero, a Patron margaritas costs $10. OK, $9.75. I would have thought me holding the card with the night’s special would have hinted that I didn’t want a $10 drink, but apparently, I lacked the special insight that Patron margaritas are way overpriced versions of the normal drink. So in you are there, try saying “I would like a house margarita” or “For the love of God, don’t give me a $10 margarita.” I’m suggesting these options to you because I won’t be back.

The URL for El Potrero is http://therealtasteofmexico.net/. If this is the real taste of Mexico, on wonder hordes of Mexicans are invading our country – it’s the only way to get a decent meal.

It started off fine. The first waiter was very friendly, the waitress that followed seemed to tolerate me, which is all I ask. The chips were average, as was the salsa. So far, so good. Not as impressive as my typical (and rare) trip to Taco Bell, but I’ve had worse. When my $10 margarita arrived (I didn’t know it cost $10 at the time), I thought it was below average in taste. Oh well, live and learn.

The second lesson I learned was that the food was not that great. I ordered the chicken Burrito Ranchero. It came out almost faster than I ordered it. It was impressively fast, and if I got food from McDonald’s as fast, I’d be happy. Perhaps I should have been suspicious, but most Mexican restaurants in the general vicinity of Lansing area pretty fast.

El Potrero burrito

El Potrero burrito

The burrito didn’t look good. It was the burrito equivalent of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, pale and disturbing. Digging into it didn’t reveal any hidden gems. It revealed only average-tasting pulled chicken. The tortilla was soggy and unappetizing, and, as you can probably guess, I was unimpressed. The cheese and lettuce did its best to hide the carnage below, but it could only do so much. However, the rice was excellent, by far the best part of the whole experience. Skip the entrée and just get the rice.

If there is a silver lining here, it’s that I learned not to go to El Potrero in Owosso again. If I can convince one person to avoid it and hit a quality establishment (the Wendy’s looked quite nice), then I’ll consider this a success.

Chili’s, Okemos

I didn’t suggest Chili’s for the quiet atmosphere. I expected the opposite, and that’s what we got. It was a family outing, so an intimate setting was not required. On past visits, I had good margaritas, burgers, and chicken crispers, and some combination of those things is what I intended to order.

Chili’s is also a good place to go to make yourself look like a better parent. The place echoes with the screeches of kids whose parents care little for the desires of others. My daughter is mouse-like in her silence compared to many howler monkeys that pass for children. For all my failings, having a child that screams in restaurants is not one of them.

As I mentioned, I had intended on having my usual Chili’s fare, but I was thrown off course by the smoked chicken burrito. It sounded interesting, and certainly looked appetizing – oh, those clever menu item photographers.  I wish I had made that career choice instead of computer programmer. The words “smoked”, “chicken”, and “burrito” just sounded awesome together, too. In fact, Chili’s had given itself a Tex-Mex makeover, more Mex-y, less Tex-y, and there were quite a few things that looked new to me.

Smoked chicken burrito

Smoked chicken burrito

The burrito turned out to be alright. It wasn’t that I disliked it, but I could get something better at Chipotle or Qdoba, and it would have been cheaper, too. There just needed to be a bit something more in the flavor department to make the burrito more exciting. Jalapenos or raccoon or something, I don’t know. Yes, I do know. They need to transfer some of the jalapenos from the side of beans into the burrito, then it would have been a well-balanced meal.

At some point, I will return to Chili’s – the call of the chicken crispers is strong, and they have a strong entry in the nachos  department. I hope the smoked chicken burrito gets more smoky or gets a flavor boost because it’s got good potential. Perhaps they need to tone it down so the parents ignoring their animals are distracted from their phones. But the next time I’m in the mood for a burrito, I’ll head to Cancun. The Okemos restaurant, not the city – that’s a bit far to go for dinner.

Fish tacos at The Roadhouse, Beulah

It was a semi-dark and snowy night in northern Michigan when we pulled into town.  Past the McDonald’s, we rolled into the heart of Beulah to the town’s best restaurant, The Roadhouse. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Where’s Beulah? It’s north of wherever you are, that’s where.

I’m going to start somewhere unusual with a bold bean statement: The re-fried beans were the best I’ve ever had. Oh yes I did. Usually, they are an extra on the plate that I eat as an afterthought, if I have enough room. But these beans actually tasted good. I was actually disappointed when they were gone – I wanted more. So a big bean bravo to The Roadhouse.

Fish Tacos at The Roadhouse

Fish Tacos at The Roadhouse

But you are not going to eat anywhere just for the re-fried beans, so let’s get to the main event. The fish tacos are a Friday night special, drawing people from blocks and blocks. Or, in my case, 150 miles. They’re so special, in fact, you can only get them on Fridays, so plan ahead. The fish was fall-apart light and had a nice flavor. Hold on tight because those tortillas fall apart  – that pico soaks in pretty well.  I had three, and it was just right for me. Your mileage may very.

I am also a fan of the frozen margaritas there. They do not skimp on the tequila, which is my favorite ingredient in a margarita. Save room because they are worth it. They are especially useful after a long drive with a child. I’ve heard.

I’ve been to The Roadhouse in all seasons, and though summer is best – they have a nice patio, complete with outside bar – any season will do for some excellent Mexican food. It’s a tough decision on what to eat, but both the fish tacos and the nachos are excellent.

Moe’s Southwest Grill, East Lansing

We’re a month into the new year, and I was only two restaurants into my goal of 25 new (to me) restaurants. With a heavy weight upon my heart, I decided to step it up and hit new restaurant #3, Moe’s Southwest Grill in East Lansing. In case you’re bored or curious, #1 was “Starter’s” in Dearborn, and #2 was “The Kung Fu” in Lansing.

Moe's, East Lansing

Moe’s, East Lansing

The interior was bright and cheery like those polar bears in Coke commercials. What made my Monday visit even better that Monday was burrito night – $6-ish for a burrito, chips, and a Coke. I decided on the Homewrecker, even though it sounds very antisocial. But meat, guacamole, sour cream, and assorted fillers stuffed that poor flour tortilla. It was stretched tight – I felt sorry for it. No tortilla deserves that fate. And then I ate it.

Moe's Burrito

Moe’s Burrito

So as far as burritos goes, it was good. I went with the pork, though if I had to do it over again, I would have gotten the steak. Or the chicken. Or the ground beef. But not the vegetarian  – that’s just wrong. I would compare the Moe’s burrito to Pancheros or Qdoba’s – they’re all the same style of meal. The chips were also good, and there a half-dozen (or so) different salsas to choose from. And they had a cool touch-screen Coke machine that I would love to have in my house.

So I’ll be returning to Moe’s. For the nachos, though – I need to find out how Moe’s nachos stack up to the others around town. Otherwise, life means nothing.

Blue Gill Grill, Haslett

Monday night is a special night at Blue Gill Grill. It is $1 off schooners (that’s good), and it’s $1 taco nights (that’s good, too). Yes, cheap beer and Mexican food – oh, those are great words.

I must start with the beer because it was outstandingly outstanding. In other words, I liked it. I had never heard of Leinenkugel Snowdrift Vanilla Porter, but when you have snowdrift, vanilla, and porter in the same sentence – well, good things are bound to happen. And they did. It was a smooth, rich, tasty, beautiful beer, one which definitely did taste like vanilla. Try it, drink it, love it.

Now, back to the tacos. I’m not going to complain about food that costs a buck, except the deep-fried Twinkies at Mermaids in Las Vegas. Those were incredibly nasty, but since Twinkies are extinct, it is irrelevant.

Where was I? Yes, tacos.

They are not El Oasis quality. (El Oasis is a food truck that wanders around Lansing in an orange and white trailer and sells amazingly good Mexican food even if it looks like they belong in a circus.) But, for $1 – I had five (soft shell) – you could do a lot worse. Even though the tortilla was flabby and pasty, even pastier than me after a long winter, I’d have them again, as they were decent, and I didn’t suffer any serious after-taco experiences, if you catch my drift. And they were a dollar – did I mention that.

Haslett – live the dream, eat cheap Mexican food.

The beautiful buffets of Barcelo Maya

In a previous post, I reviewed La Brasserie, one of Barcelo Maya’s a la carte restaurants. Now it’s time to talk about where I spent most of my eating hours during our stay at the Palace , the buffets.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda

In addition to a grill (quicky food, or a place for a snack when the buffets were closed) and the a la carte restaurants are the two buffets, Mirador and La Hacienda. The buffets are next to each other and the food served is very similar, though La Hacienda has a greater focus on Mexican food while Mirador is geared to international foods. You can see the international flair with Eiffel Tower dessert table.

Barcelo Maya buffet

Barcelo Maya buffet

I sound like a glutton saying this, but the meals were highlights of my days. No guilt was involved the first three days we were there because it was cloudy, cool, and windy. Mealtime was a welcome break.

La Hacienda

La Hacienda

The selection was amazing. Though I did a decent job in the variety department, I was nowhere close to trying everything that the buffets had to offer. I’ve vowed that next time I’m at Barcelo Maya, I’ll try at least one new item every meal. It will be a gut-wrenching (not literally, hopefully) decision, bypassing so many good things to gamble on something new, but such is the life of the food adventurer. (There is a little sarcasm in there – I will not be showing up Andrew Zimmern anytime soon.

As a wild guess, for any given meal I would say there were between 50 and 75 different things to choose from. I thought about listing all the things they had, but that would get boring to do, and even more boring to read. But even you picky eaters – and you know who you are – will find something you like.

A typical plate

A typical plate

I salute you, teeny tiny chimichangas. Nary a meal went by without you, nor your amigos, los topopos (nacho chips). You were made all the better by the bottomless guacamole and salsa selection, from the mild pico de gayo, to the spicy verde. The tostadas were frequent visitors to my plate as well, and the fajita station – that rocked. Pollo, carne – it didn’t matter, they were both were my prey. And any time I saw some kind of pulled meat, whether it be barbacoa or pork, I knew I was in for something good.

You like fish? No worries, amigo. In addition to the various filets that were available at any meal (fish for breakfast? Yes), there was also a cook-while-you-wait station. The scallops were fantastic. Like steak? Of course you do. There was a grilling station to get your beef, burgers, and hot dogs, and I couldn’t leave out the pasta station with your choice of noodles and sauces. At breakfast, feel free to get yourself a made-to-order omelet, or if you don’t want to wait, there are small, pre-made omelets as well. One thing I noticed from our last visit three years ago was that the sushi station was gone. I had never been tempted to try raw fish in Mexico, so I didn’t miss that one.

Is tequila your thing? La Hacienda has three types of tequila – just turn the itty-bitty spigots and out it flows. The same table that holds the tequila also holds Mexican desserts in the evening, so you can partake in whatever guilty pleasure floats your boat. I had both and saved myself the decision.

Barcelo Maya tequila table

Barcelo Maya tequila table

There were also themed nights. This shot is from Italian night at Mirador. Our last night, Friday, was Mexican night at La Hacienda, where even more Mexican food was served than normal, and there were various desserts shaped like Mayan pyramids, something I definitely don’t see around Lansing.

Barcelo Maya buffet

Barcelo Maya buffet

We sat outside whenever we could, enjoying the OK weather at the beginning of the week, and the great weather at the end. In any case, listening to the waves was fantastic, and we were blessed with some amazing moonrises.

Writing this post has reminded me what a great time I had at Barcelo Maya. It was my fifth visit, and I’d go back again in a second. This is a food blog, so I’ve focused on that aspect, but the amazing beaches, pools, rooms, and things for the kids. So go, eat, drink, and get sunburned.