When Mucho Gusto opened in 2005, it filled a Tempe dining gap with its modern, slightly upscale take on standard Mexican fare. Its success was due to the creativity of Chad Withycombe and Carlos Manriquez, the same duo that helped launch Atlas Bistro in its first inception, as a Southwest-inspired fine-dining restaurant.
Unfortunately, in the hospitality business, restaurant years are much like dog years, and though the atmosphere of Mucho Gusto has accepted the inevitable passage of time with grace, the culinary offerings have grown a bit stale.
Withycombe is still at the helm of Mucho Gusto, after buying out Manriquez's stake in the restaurant three years ago, but the charm of the initial menu — which I've sampled often, over the years — has grown blander with each new season. The original menu at Mucho Gusto demonstrated an aptitude for modifying south-of-the-border food with novel urban twists: tart pomegranate seeds in the guacamole, nutty-sweet tamarind margaritas, chorizo-laced adobo clams, and the caldo-style Colorado pork stew.
Some chef-inspired twists on traditional Mexican food are still present, since the recipes haven't changed much since Mucho Gusto's initial realization. The changes in the menu that have been made, Withycombe says, were done primarily to cater to public demand, by dropping some items (adobo clams, Colorado stew) that were much loved but not big sellers, and adding more crowd-pleasers like chimichangas, enchiladas, and kebabs (banderillas). It's sad to think that these changes dumbed down the menu at Mucho Gusto, but clearly some of the offerings do seem to have grown blander in an effort to cater to a broader audience.
The entire menu also seems to have trended toward adding sweet flavors instead of spice, with ingredients like amaretto, Coca-Cola, vanilla, Grand Marnier, and fruit salsas. During my visits to Mucho Gusto, the sweetness was so pervasive in certain dishes that my companions and I were left craving some sort of acidity as a balance. And the entire menu is in desperate need of some serious chile-based heat. I understand dialing back the heat for Grandma, but for real lovers of Mexican food, a bit of burn never hurts.
This is particularly relevant in light of the prime location and warm, welcoming atmosphere at Mucho Gusto. It's just off Mill Avenue's beaten path and has an average entrée price point around $14; both help to keep students at bay and create a barrio-style eatery that caters to the more mature Tempe 'hood. A margarita (or two) on the rustic patio is an escape from the bustle of a crowded college town, and the laid-back environment is perfect for catching up with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The upscale cantina décor of Mucho Gusto hasn't changed much since its inception. The interior is accented by an abundance of dark wood and rich colors. The glow of votive candles peeks out between bead-fringed sconces, warming the environment with their soft light. Fernando Botero-inspired artwork enhances the atmosphere with colorful portrayals of exuberant and portly figures indulging in the richness of life, right down to their nude counterparts who grace the bathrooms.
This tasteful yet playful feeling transfers over to the spacious patio, with textured adobe-like stucco, wrought-iron accents, and tiny white lights twinkling around the exterior. The sprawling patio is almost as large as the interior of the restaurant, a fortunate thing considering the fact that our spring fever was full blown and we looked forward to al fresco eats.
The service was a pleasant surprise when we went, with a waitstaff that was able to make a confident recommendation from the menu and inquire just often enough so as not to be obtrusive. A certain sense of brusque entitlement among servers has been an unfortunate trend in recent years, but Mucho Gusto has definitely righted any past wrongs. Aside from a mysterious plate of guacamole that was never delivered to our table, the service was attentive and personable, and our water glasses never neared empty.
In subsequent visits, we were able to try the guacamole at Mucho Gusto, which has always relied on a touch of sweetness in the form of a Grand Marnier reduction, but on our last visit, it suffered from too much of a good thing: The avocados were surrounded by a puddle of extremely sweet syrup flecked with jalapeño bits. The guacamole solo was well executed, but some jalapeño flecks would be a definite improvement. Unfortunately, the cloying sweetness of the syrup overwhelmed any trace of heat and completely muted the guacamole, leaving our taste buds crying for some acidity and spice to balance the flavor. In the future, I'll order my guac naked.
The machaca and cheese flautas were a much better choice as a starter. Two substantial flour tortillas were wrapped around shredded beef and melted jack cheese, pan-fried to a crisp, and smothered in a red sauce and cilantro crema. The red sauce was supposedly chile-based, but I had a difficult time distinguishing earthy heat in the primarily tomato-flavored sauce. Likewise, the beef was fork-tender but on the bland side and could have benefited from a longer stew in its Mexican spices. The overall dish was a success, though, and what's nice is that these flautas are big enough to share as an appetizer among a table of four, or as an entrée all on their own.
The most disappointing starters had to be the pozole, which was doubly crushing considering how highly I used to sing this hearty soup's praises. The tomatillo-based broth was so sour I had a difficult time wondering how it even gained approval to leave the kitchen. In the entire bowl of pozole, I counted no more than 10 pieces of hominy, further suggesting that whoever was wielding the ladle was having an off day. Although I couldn't stand to slurp at the broth for long, I did navigate the cabbage and radish garnish to seek out every tender chunk of well-seasoned pork to wrap in a little tortilla blanket.
The street tacos redeemed the pozole's poor showing. Double-lined corn tortillas held generous, well-seasoned chunks of carne asada, red chile pulled pork, batter-fried fish, and grilled shrimp. The tacos were served with a fresh and simple side of greens accented by roasted bits of corn, tomato slices, and a honeyed vinaigrette that hampered the lightness of an otherwise refreshing salad.
Entrées made the strongest showing on Mucho Gusto's menu. The gaucho steak was a tender, marinated skirt steak in a chimichurri sauce that had a surprising kick and a robust garlic flavor. The barra vieja shrimp were also well worth the price, and the dish is one particular instance in which sweetness of the dish worked to elevate the entire flavor of the meal. A dozen shrimp were coated in a velvety, dark sauce made with chiles and Coca-Cola that was reminiscent of the complex, rich flavor of a mole. The smothered pulled pork and cheese enchiladas were also a solid choice, but they suffered just a bit from the same tomato-based red sauce as the flautas.
The sides were a disservice to the entrées: bland, forgettable sides of steamed summer squash, Spanish-style rice, and refried beans. Why waste plate space with flavorless squash when you could substitute calabacitas? Or refried black beans in lieu of the standard pinto paste? It seemed like a missed opportunity for a place that's trying to set itself apart as a destination for bistro-style Mexican.
Whatever you do, I recommend steering clear of the banderillas unless Atkins demands it of you. I tried the chicken banderillas, which were described as marinated chicken skewers served on pico de gallo slaw. Instead, I was left with two bland, under-seasoned chicken skewers that were so dry I needed a hefty swig of margarita and a slice of juicy pineapple just to choke them down.
There's something to be said for catering to your audience, as demonstrated by Mucho Gusto's impressive run in a Tempe neighborhood overrun by eateries — many of which come and go with the semesters. But tried and true can easily slip into boring and uninspired, if you're not careful.