MEX SURROGATE

The two enchiladas on my accomplice's plate are supposed to be different. He ordered one cheese and onion and one green chile and cheese. Yet they are indistinguishable. Both are cheesy and inoffensive. The only green chile that turns up is in the perfumed tamale--which leaves me cold.

Refrieds at Ajo Al's are heavy, man. They resemble peanut butter topped with melted cheese. Spanish rice is overly spicy, thanks to a substantial amount of black pepper, tomato and more green chile. I'm not wild about either.

Mounds of leftover food remain on my plate. I don't know how I'll explain this to our waiter. He'll ask me if I want a take-out container and I'll have to say no. We'll probably both feel embarrassed. You see, though it satisfies some basic need, this meal at Ajo Al's is strictly a one-night stand. These days I have to really like food to take it home with me. Being able to serve it up spicy doesn't exclude a restaurant from being labeled "gringo Mexican." From its nuevo offerings (shrimp fajitas, salad carbon and the aforementioned spinach enchiladas) to its buff dude waiters and white-adobe-cafe look, Ajo Al's has been watered down and formulated to appeal to the rich folks in the neighborhood.

Location Info

Map

Ajo Al's Mexican Cafe

7458 W. Bell Road
Glendale, AZ 85308-8525

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Glendale

Popular? Yes. Real? No.

From crowded, we go to empty.
Tommy Gringo's Mexican Cantina is bereft of customers when we stop in for a late lunch on a recent Sunday. Actually we feel lucky to have found it. The address is 10305 North Scottsdale Road, but it's buried in the back of a weird plaza. You have to leave Scottsdale Road just south of Shea, turn in by the Baskin-Robbins and drive across a huge potholed parking lot before you see the little restaurant. This may account for the absence of clientele.

I like the look of Tommy Gringo's. It's intimate. Its red vinyl booths are shiny. The room is decorated with colorful serapes, mirrors, sombreros and pinatas. Somehow the fiesta look doesn't bother me here.

We seat ourselves. A sad-looking, low-energy woman brings us menus after a while. Only one other booth is filled and she seems to know its occupants. Off and on, she sits with them.

A basket of chips, a cup of salsa and some hot sauce are delivered to our table. We examine the menu while we put away some chips. Unfortunately, they are not entirely crispy. Some are so soaked with grease they are just plain chewy. And the salsa is so chilled I can barely taste it. No matter. It's a sad affair of canned tomatoes and no cilantro. The hot sauce is thick and homemade, but also lacking subtleties of flavor.

Since we assume we're in Gringoland, we order a green chile cheese crisp to start our meal. It's a hearty one, featuring melted Monterey Jack and longhorn cheddar cheeses. Canned green chiles dot its surface. It's crisp (natch) and greasy, but I like it. I mean, who can resist a cheese crisp?

Both this place and Ajo Al's offer menu options in case you're really really gringo. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches are available. Obviously, we don't carry the gringo test this far. We place our order--for Mexican food--and finish off the cheese crisp.

As always, my accomplice and I find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for our lunch. We listen to the rock music filling the restaurant and test each other's knowledge of arcane Seventies musical trivia. The time passes quickly.

Here comes our food. Thankfully, Tommy Gringo's portions are sized for normal humans--though, as usual, we've ordered too much for just the two of us.

Tell me, is there anything more gringo than a chimichanga? I don't think so. The chimi I've ordered is grease soaked and chock full of white-meat chicken. A scoop of guacamole and a scoop of sour cream perch atop it; a bed of iceberg lettuce surrounds it. Frankly, I've never understood the appeal of the chimichanga. It's a fried burro. So what? This plain version certainly won't change my mind: It's just grease, chicken and mashed avocado. No hint of any spice anywhere. "Gringo chili" is well named. It looks and tastes straight from the can: ground beef and beans with melted cheese on top. It's not even hot.

While I'm testing the cheese enchiladas and taco plate, a new face appears in the dining room. A man, perhaps the owner, buzzes by to ask how everything is. "Do you need a take-out container? We get a lot of requests for those," he says. "Not just yet," we reply. He heads back to the kitchen.

The enchiladas are average. The corn tortillas are too chewy for my taste. The sauce is red and thick with chile, but too heavy with some dark flavoring. A taco is just what the gringo ordered: large, fried, greasy, piled with way too much cheese, lettuce and tired-looking tomatoes. I do not like it at all.

"How 'bout that take-out container, folks?" The man from the kitchen is back. He places our check on the table. I point to it. "Actually, we wanted to try some of the cheesecake on your menu."

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