A lot of people congregate at Tequila Ranch, the massive Mexican restaurant at Seminole Paradise, but they're not flocking there for the guacamole and chips.
TR is so relentlessly crowded — no, they don't take reservations; yes, they hand you a beeper at the door — because it appeals to frat boys, bachelorettes, 21st-birthday celebrators, and slot-addicted tourists from West Virginia. I mean no disrespect: Who doesn't love a half-naked blond bouncing on a mechanical bull, boobies all askew? Who wouldn't want to participate in a tequila-tasting seminar or a Corona promotion? Or see three-story holograms of bronc-busters and spinning dancers?
With its two high-ceilinged rooms, Mexican-tile floors, wrought-iron chandeliers, comfortable booths, oversized murals, and ubiquitous pottery hues, Tequila Ranch signifies festive-peppy fun, fun, fun. It serves 100 different tequilas, plus a high-rolling special margarita that sells for $150 (you down a couple after you hit the jackpot on the Enchanted Unicorn slot over at the casino). From our booth beneath a mural, we had a view through floor-to-ceiling glass of the holograms in the sound-and-light show outside.
This place has so much fascinating stuff going on that I don't understand why it even bothers to promote its Tex-Mex menu. If it'd just give itself permission to think of the kitchen as a sort of feed chute pumping out booze-absorbing corn and wheat, everything would be dandy. We get it: Young people with stomachs full of nothing but tequila do not make good customers; they make messes on your tile floor. You need to line those stomachs with fat, salt, and starches. Then you cross your fingers and hope to God they keep it all down.
With the robotic "Billy Bad" bucking around in his pen plus a lot of smooth talk from guys on the make, there's enough bull already at Tequila Ranch without a bunch of P.R. people hawking this lame rendition of "authentic Mexican cuisine." When chef Ernesto Zendejas, a Mexico City native whose family ran a sophisticated restaurant there, was heading TR's kitchen, he turned out some decent and creative dishes, I'm told. I don't know what happened next, exactly. TR's owners — SilverYoung from Chicago and two silent investors from Las Vegas whose names may never be spoken aloud (the ladies at Zucker Public Relations will take this secret to their graves) — play their cards extremely close to their chests. But last year, there was a mold incident. A wall that TR shared with the Body Shop was opened to reveal something hairy and rampant ("terrifying" was what I heard). TR subsequently closed "for renovations" that purportedly had nothing to do with the Black Lagoon creature feeding on the building's entrails. It reopened with a menu that was either revamped or dumbed down, depending upon your perspective. Then, in October 2006, it hired chef Jean Giannini, whose pedigree includes work as executive chef at Princeton and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
As luck would have it, we brought along an out-of-town guest who had some expertise in matters Mexatrocious. He'd worked as a waiter at Chi-Chi's in its heyday, where he'd served thousands of flautas and mashed his share of tableside guacamole (now a lawyer, he still uses their guac recipe for his cocktail parties). When it came to whisking trays of drinks between tables full of girls gone wild, he was a pro.
We ordered some tableside guac ($9) and a Tequila Ranch margarita ($10). There's your acid test for Mexican food: How the lime is handled in drink and dip tells you whether these TR folks know what they're doing with citrus and sodium.
They don't. Not at all. If I'd been just a regular customer instead of a food writer expected to do my job, I would have paid my check at that point and high-tailed it across the plaza to Renegade Barbecue. Because the avocado was cold. As in: make-your-teeth-ache cold. If that fruit hadn't done time in the freezer, it had certainly been deeply and thoroughly refrigerated. It had lost all its flavor and most of its texture. Our server added some diced onion, habanera pepper, the juice of a whole lime (that's a lotta limón!), cold chopped tomatoes, and cilantro (when asked, he identified this as parsley). He added no salt whatsoever. Then he mashed it around some.
I put a spoonful of this baffling concoction on a bright-pink, factory-made chip and topped it with a bit of canned, sugary red salsa. The very sour but still bland guacamole was the worst I've ever tasted. I took a swig of my lukewarm margarita. What hell was I in?
Tequila Ranch "is not just a restaurant and bar, but a complete dining experience," a press release had assured me. And this was true: If you're sitting in a restaurant and you're eating something, you're pretty much having a complete dining experience. Ours included some halfway decent Santa Fe chicken spring rolls ($9), flour tortillas rolled around chopped chicken, corn, black beans, cheese, and roasted peppers, cut into attractive triangles and served with creamy avocado sauce for dipping. If you must go to Tequila Ranch, I recommend that you begin and end your complete dining experience with these.
You can certainly skip the beef flautas ($15), which had no crispness in their tortillas and were topped with flavorless cheese. As for the grilled teriyaki mahi-mahi ($17), you don't need to go there either. The crosshatched and seasoned fish was fine; it might even have jumped from a C+ to a B had it not been surrounded by a "mango sauce" that tasted exactly like the red sweet-'n'-sour goo that comes on a well-known Chinamerican dish named after a certain General Tso. Luckily, the atrocious sauce was separated from the fish by a fortification of white rice, so the mahi was saved from contamination.
As for my habanera jack ribs ($18), there were better racks on display everywhere else at Tequila Ranch. I don't know where the kitchen gets its sauces — the bland, factory-flavored tomato salsa; the monstrous mango goo; the watery, green chip-dipping sauce; the ultracandied barbecue baste for their ribs — but I'd bet my sister's first-born child that they aren't making these miserable drizzles and dips anywhere on the premises. And they need to find another vendor.
Our complete dining experience brightened a bit with dessert: Cajeta ($7; in some parts of Latin America, the word is slang for vajayjay, which makes this sweet as much fun to talk about as it is to eat). It's a sort of creamy pudding made with dulce de leche, or milk cooked and sugared until it's thick enough to glop on a spoon. You just can't kill this dish; it's practically foolproof — and Tequila Ranch doesn't. It was delicious. The alluring "fresh raspberries and mint" promised on the menu turned out to be an empty tease, however. Maybe they were out of raspberries that night. The oversized sprig of mint clearly was not meant to be ingested.
So how did TR compare with Chi-Chi's?
By our out-of-towner's account, the mid-'70s was the Golden Age of Tex Mex. It ended when a deadly hepatitis A outbreak was traced to a Pittsburgh Chi-Chi's in 2003. With it went cheap, delicious burritos, fried ice cream, and nationwide satisfaction.
Tequila Ranch isn't carrying on that legacy. Nor would we even ask so much of it. Just please, don't freeze the guacamole.