Getting Mexican food in Greater Cincinnati wasn't easy 10 years ago. There were ventures into Tex-Mex, like the venerable El Coyote. We had the on-again, off-again performance of Sylvia's in Newport. Chi-Chi's opened the door, and then the Don Pablo's chain arrived, with a surprising look into the breadth and depth of Mexican cooking. While it wasn't exactly like setting foot on the Yucatan, it was an opportunity for Midwesterners to taste freshly-made tortillas for the first time in surroundings that were safely Americanized for your protection.
Haven't we gone beyond that now?
Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy tells me we haven't. This is another corporate version of Mexican cuisine that, while not disastrous, is hardly an adventure in authenticity. It's the equivalent of vacationing at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, where the surroundings are spotless, the menu is predictable, the drinks are bounteous -- and you never experience Mexico.
Abuelo's Disneyfied dining experience begins with a trip to Mason, soon to be the upscale chain restaurant capital of the entire Western hemisphere. In Mason, you can find a sanitized, garlic-free version of every popular cuisine you've never really tasted. The parking lot is well-lit and sizable, which seems to be a critical factor in the dining experience.
Don't get me wrong: This is not a bad restaurant. After all, a Cozumel resort can be a great vacation. The prices are reasonable, and the portions are fair. The setting is gracious, with tiled floors and comfortable seating, and the pavilion-style ceiling makes the room nice and airy. It's just not genuine, and it shouldn't claim to be.
We started our meal with salsa, chips and guacamole ($3.95). The salsa was heavy on the tomatoes and bereft of cilantro or garlic -- but it was fresh. The chips were very thin and light, great for salsa, but a little brittle for anything else. They couldn't handle the guacamole, which was very thick, bland and surprisingly dry. A squeeze of lime helped.
One of my dining companions had an excellent piece of fish, Salmon San Carlos ($14.95), served with saffron rice and mixed vegetables that were crisp and bright. The menu mentioned that it was seasoned with cilantro, but I couldn't detect it. Still, anyone who enjoys salmon for its own merits would like this dish.
Our server's recommendation, Enchiladas de Cozumel ($12.95), was pleasant, but nondescript. The enchiladas, filled with avocado that didn't have any taste, were drowned in a rich cheesy sauce and garnished with several shrimp. Scallops, mentioned in the menu description, were missing in action.
I had an Enchilada Combo Platter ($8.95), which allows a mix and match of several offerings. The shredded beef was topped with green chili sauce and actually had a distinctive beef taste. I was excited about the spinach enchilada with salsa de crema and the avocado enchilada with salsa ranchera; I was disappointed when they both tasted like mucho queso and not much else. The side serving of papas con chili (mashed potatoes seasoned with chili) would have been worthwhile if they hadn't dried out under the heat lamp in the kitchen.
The most successful element of the meal was dessert. We shared the flan ($4.95), which was a little on the firm side, but I prefer it that way. Tradition-alists would disagree! The dessert nachos ($4.95) were clever and tasty: a cinnamon "tortilla" cut into eighths, with each slice topped with a mini-scoop of praline ice cream, whipped cream, caramel and chocolate sauces. A perfect "sharing" dessert.
I can only recommend Abuelo's if you fear genuine Mexican food. If you prefer to cross paths with other cultures, learn a few new words and new tastes and experience real flavor in delicious food, you should look for a friendly storefront taqueria like La Mexicana in Newport or Taqueria Mercado in Erlanger or Springdale. You might see goat meat on the menu -- but if that's not your thing, you don't have to try it! The beef and the chicken are safe, seasoned with garlic, lime, cumin and chili. The soft corn tacos are topped with freshly chopped onion and cilantro, not drowned in processed cheese. Enjoy a big steaming bowl of seafood soup, brimming with delicious shrimp, mussels and squid, resplendent with garlic and lime. The food is healthier, and it tastes better!
Ésta es la cosa verdadera. ©
Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy
Go: 5010 Deerfield Blvd., Mason
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Payment: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Red Meat Alternatives: Many