Restaurant Reviews

Taco 101

There's an old Yucatecan joke that goes like this: "I went to sleep last night and dreamed of eating the world's largest portion of cochinita pibil. When I awoke, there was a hole in the ground, and my pig was missing." I relate this as a means of highlighting a wonderful dish made by wrapping achiote-marinated pig in banana leaves, then grilling it in a pit dug into the earth. Too bad you won't find this delectable regional specialty, or any other, at Cancun Mexican Grill in Hollywood, which is differentiated from the rest of the pack of predictable south-of-the-border eateries only by its blissful lack of an annoying mariachi band.

Otherwise, it's the same old hat dance: A brightly colored, two-level, 220-seat, sombreros-on-the-wall dining room, with big-screen sports TV, margaritas served in oversized glasses that resemble goldfish bowls, and a trite traipse into the well-traversed terrain of tacos, tamales, nachos, burritos, enchiladas... not that there's anything wrong with these foods. Known as antojitos, they are the hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza of Mexico, commonly served at taquerías, cafeterías, and street-vendor stands throughout that country. While we don't expect every Mex establishment to exhibit the ambitiousness of Eduardo de San Angel, it would be nice if every now and then, one of these margarita mills would show at least an attempt to come up with something worth talking about.

Well, there are a few things. Darn good tamales, for one; Cancun Grill's rendition was flawless, an open-faced, corn-husk boat filled with steamy, soft, kernel-flecked masa and capped with chunks of beef in a savory stew. This is one of a half-dozen "traditional" dishes that are available with rice and beans as a dinner or à la carte. We sampled most of them as starters, on one occasion enjoying a soft and delicate cheese enchilada and mild, shredded, chicken-stuffed poblano chile relleno -- along with the tamales, these were the high points of our dining experiences. Another visit brought a flimsy beef taco just a notch above the sort sold at Taco Hell, and, from the regular list of appetizers, taquitos, which are cigar-sized, deep-fried corn tortillas rolled around in chicken and topped with sour cream and guacamole; they were greasy and bland.

Alternate starters are all cheesy: nachos with melted cheese, quesadillas with melted cheese, panchos (corn chips) with melted cheese, and queso fundido (cheese fondue). Still more queso atop "Mexican pizza," a tortilla-based thingamajig that I steered clear of for the same reason I avoided "ensalada teriyaki" -- an old rule of thumb that says never order pizza, blintzes, or anything with teriyaki sauce at a Mexican restaurant.

Allow me to backtrack a moment to the thin, crisp, bright-yellow corn chips; the liquidy tomato salsa purée with cool cilantro kick; and, at an extra charge, the highly seasoned guacamole, which was shiny and smooth like avocado pudding, an ominous sign that the product called "frozen avocado pulp" is perhaps being substituted for the real deal.

Forty-eight of Cancun Grill's 50 appetizer/main course items rely on the recycling of a minute pool of main ingredients: beef, cheese, chicken breast, and a seafood medley of "scallops, shrimp, and fish"; only black bean soup and black bean salad are without (and a pork chop special puzzlingly listed on the bottom of the menu's drink insert). Onions, green peppers, white mushrooms, tomatoes, and precious few chilis are pretty much the whole enchilada concerning vegetables, while accompanying starches are refried beans and tepid yellow rice.

Main courses are divided into "Mexican specialties" and "Mexican plates." The former is comprised of flautas, chimichangas, and more gussied-up versions of quesadillas and burritos than are found in the appetizer section -- for instance, burrito pacifica: "scallops, shrimp, and fish" sautéed with onion and mushroom bits, rolled in a large flour tortilla, and smothered with cream sauce, melted cheese, and guacamole. The shellfish was flavorfully seared, the white sauce smooth and mellow, the fish nonexistent.

Mexican plate selections proved the most disappointing. Enchiladas piped with shredded chicken breast and topped with sweet mole sauce (not "spicy" as the menu suggests) were dry and dull -- the regular enchiladas are much better. You could pay an extra two dollars for a fajita made with New York strip steak as opposed to regular beef, but no cut of meat could be tender after being so overcooked. The tough strips were tossed with onions and peppers, but there was nothing Mexican about their preparation -- if anything, I thought I detected a hint of teriyaki. A trio of warm tortillas came on the side, which wasn't enough for the hefty portion of meat.

On another visit, just two tortillas came alongside "guiso Mexicano," for which the menu warns: "Careful, this is a very Mexican dish made with tequila, steak, onions, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, cilantro, and hot jalapeños. Ay Chihuahua!" Actually, it's more like "Oy veh!" as there are, in fact, no "very Mexican dishes" on this menu, the jalapeño-less guiso tasting quite similar to the sanitized, Americanized fajita mix. Flour tortillas, incidentally, are 30 cents apiece -- you can't quibble with Cancun's prices; most entrées run from $9.95 to $14.95. I can, however, take issue with main courses arriving before we were half through with the appetizers. This isn't necessarily the waiter's fault, but service was generally inattentive.

There are just two dessert options, one being a firm and creamy homemade flan, the other "deep fried ice cream," a curious, unfried concoction composed of a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a crust of cold corn tortilla flakes pressed into it.

Lastly, an admission: I made up that joke about the pig. I can assure you, however, that the front page of Cancun Mexican Grill's menu really does boast, "Our taste, service, and quality make us stand out from other Mexican restaurants." Now that's funny.

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Lee Klein