Battle of the Dishes: Cinco de Margarita Edition

Happy Cinco, everyone! In honor of the Mexican holiday that most Mexicans don't actually celebrate, we're battling the most gringo-friendly item on any Mexican restaurant menu: fajitas. You can't help but love a dish that arrives on your table sizzling.

For this week's battle, we pitted one margarita-inspired restaurant against another. After all, isn't that what Cinco de Mayo is really about? 

In One Corner: Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville
6751 N Sunset Blvd. in Glendale

Margaritaville is a Parrothead's dream come true -- an entire restaurant crammed with kitschy visual references to Buffett's songs!! There's a massive boat. Plenty of parrots. And a prop plane flying above, a cheeky reference to "Jamaica Mistaica," which Buffett penned after his seaplane was mistaken for a drug-smuggling craft.

I wonder how many Parrotheads there are in Phoenix, because this place is always packed. We're talking hour-long waits on some weekends. Now, maybe it's because there's a game going on at the stadium next door, or maybe it's the over-the-top touristy vibe that draws em' in. Or it could be the killer happy hour specials. You decide.

Margaritaville's menu takes a stab at playful with themed items like the "Cheeseburger in Paradise," but sadly we had to pass that one up in favor of the chicken and steak fajitas.

Mistaica #1: No sizzle. Seriously, they arrived on a plate. Not a skillet. A plate! When I order fajitas I expect everyone to drool in jealousy at my crackling, aromatic dish. The spectacle is part of the joy. Sadly, we just got a tiny dish of meat with peppers and onions that didn't even qualify as steamy.

Mistaica #2: Gristle. Jimmy Buffett's meat was a little fatty, especially given the hefty $17 price tag. 

Mistaica #3: Turn up the heat, please! "Is there actually any spice in this?" questioned my dining companion. "It tastes a little bland." The menu claimed the meat was marinated, but the beef didn't retain any savory seasonings. The chicken held a little more of the flavor, but when combined with the lettuce, sour cream and cheese, it was equally lacking.

The good news is, fajitas are such a staple that it's hard to screw them up to the point of inedibility. The tortillas, vegetables and condiments were at least fresh, though the white rice was bland. I admit the island escapist surroundings were so uplifting that I plan to go back and try that Cheeseburger in Paradise...washed down with a Margarita or three.

In the Other Corner: 3 Margaritas
1717 South Rural Rd. in Tempe

Despite being situated in a garishly peach-pink building just a few blocks away from Arizona State's Tempe campus, 3 Margaritas (that's Tres Margaritas, not "Three" Margaritas) is more of a family-friendly place than a bar. Inside, the restaurant is an eclectic mash-up of colorful hand-carved Mexican furniture, tiled arches and the worst floral patterned booths I've seen in a decade (the '80s called, they want their booths back). 

Bad booths aside, 3 Margaritas is big on customer service. Our server whisked over drinks and a heaping bowl of chips with spicy salsa in minutes. My dining partner and I would stop gabbing for a minute to realize our drinks had been refilled without our knowledge. Now that's some stealthy service.

The menu at 3 Margaritas includes all of the traditional favorites such as tamales, enchiladas and chile rellenos. Their fajitas arrived in a giant steaming --and yes, sizzling!! -- pile on a traditional cast iron skillet. If you like onions, peppers and mushrooms, this version is for you. There are three times more veggies on this plate than meat.

Not that they skimped on the meat. Hidden in the pile were a dozen long strips of lean beef and small chunks of chicken left to soak up the flavor of the vegetables. Both meats were tender and juicy, with the chicken again absorbing more of the spices. Considering the spiciness of the salsa, I expected the fajitas to pack a little heat.

"This one's pretty flavorful," said my companion. "But again I don't taste a lot of spice. Most of the flavor seems to have come from the peppers and onions." I agreed. Perhaps it's because typical chain restaurant gringo-fajitas are made with packets of grocery store seasoning.

Here, the restaurant allowed the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine through. 3 Margaritas also offered nicely spiced Spanish rice and savory refried pintos with their fajitas, something we missed at Margaritaville.

The Winner: 3 Margaritas

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