I feel for a new, casual Mexican restaurant trying to make it in a post-Chipotle world.
Upon entering the market, the venture automatically faces the challenge of serving consistent comfort food that can sway those who are addicted to the generic appeal of cilantro-lime rice and dollar-extra guacamole.
The latest brave new establishment taking on such a challenge is conveniently located in a bustling little block of MacArthur Avenue, which has made North Side its own destination. Next to Stir Crazy you’ll find the cozy Mi Jalisco Family Mexican Restaurant, the fifth location for the local chain, which has spots in Mechanicsville, Ashland, Urbanna and Ruther Glen.
A vibrant orange fills the walls against a checkerboard floor. It’s small but lively, and there are about a dozen tables, plus room for six seats at the bar.
The five-page menu is comprehensive, though not nearly as overwhelming as, say, the spiral-bound tome favored by the Cheesecake Factory. The length of the menu is perplexing, considering that each dish is fairly similar — nearly everything you can choose contains the same meats, beans and rice swimming in chili con queso.
If this is your jam, then you’ll be pleased. Just close your eyes and pick. For those of us who expect a different experience when ordering a burrito versus a quesadilla, you might walk away a little confused.
Chips arrive first, naturally, with above-average salsa and a cup of ranch dressing. I recommend skipping the latter for an order of the house-made pico de gallo ($2.95) — the best I’ve had lately. It’s packed with red onion and tons of cilantro. It tastes as if it’s been chopped up only a few minutes before it hits the table. The guacamole is equally exceptional: creamy and citrusy with bites of tomato ($3.25).
Everyone has a go-to Mexican dish — mine is enchiladas verdes ($8.75), and it’s OK. By takeout standards, it’s good. Juicy shredded chicken and melted cheese are wrapped in three tortillas and the Spanish rice on the plate is your run-of-the-mill, starchy side. The requisite tomatillo salsa, generously spilling over the plate, tastes like it might be from a jar. For a sit-down Mexican meal, it makes me wish for better options.
The quesadilla Mexicana ($10.95), which is among eight different quesadilla options on the menu, is better, showcasing a solid amount of shredded pork, cheese sauce, silky sautéed onions and a fajita-style medley of peppers. It’s accompanied by a side of guacamole and the ubiquitous Spanish rice. As I find with each entree I try, the portion is hearty — you’ll go home full. And like the enchiladas, it’s tasty enough for a convenient, inexpensive bite. But is it a quesadilla? The construction is more of a tortilla-lined Hot Pocket that requires a fork and knife. And that seems an awful lot like a burrito to me.
The burrito San Polo ($11.95) is similar to previous dishes, but it packs in the most flavor, heat and cheesy goodness. Order it with steak and you’ll also find lots of green peppers and black beans. That pico de gallo on the side doesn’t hurt either.
Steer clear of anything doused in Mi Jalisco’s nacho cheese. I’d like to know what kind of cheese it is. But if you’re still hungry, order the crowd-favorite queso fundido ($4.50) — a dinner plate full of hot Mexican chorizo dip — for the table.
On one occasion, my dining companion cleans his chimichanga plate, but later says it was average. I wouldn’t characterize Mi Jalisco as average, but it is adequate. On the other hand, the comforting atmosphere and familiar food, the magicianlike service and smiling staff are all reason enough to stop in or to try takeout and delivery. At the very least, a $2.99 Blue Moon brew at happy hour and a plate of chips with pico de gallo are reason enough for me to keep going back. S
Mi Jalisco Family Mexican Restaurant
Mondays - Sundays 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
4019 MacArthur Ave.