Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome to Moe's, a Taco Bell for grownups, with a sense of humor, and good fresh food

I have a long and not-altogether-satisfying history with Mexican food.

My earliest Mexicano memory involves a strange jar of iridescent lime-colored south-of-the-border slop with the consistency of diarrhea, which my epicurean pop picked up somewhere far from our Connecticut home.

It sat in our kitchen closet for years, because none of us kids would dare to taste it. My sister, brother and I called it GLD, our abbreviation for Green Loose Doody. (Loose Doody was our little kid term for diarrhea.)

Apparently even my mother (who eats weird stuff like kale) had reservations about the GLD. Although we were forced to demonstrate our subservience to Mom once a year by eating her horrid Shepard’s Pie, and canned Le Sueur green peas, Mom never made us eat the dreaded GLD.

As an adult, I deduced that the scary stuff was guacamole (avocado slime), but the terror continues; and to this day, I always tell the waiter to “hold the guac” when I order a fajita. If I have California Roll sushi with avocado in it, I use a chop stick to push out the green clot.

As it turns out, avocados can kill lots of four-legged mammals, and birds and fish; so guac is not just disgusting, it’s dangerous; and I’m not taking any unnecessary chances. (Confession time: I’ve never actually tasted avocado, but I know I don’t like it. I also know I don't like coffee, which I've also never tasted, but that’s a tale for another day.)

Anyway, much later in life and long after the GLD mysteriously disappeared from our house, I used to hear Johnny Carson tell jokes about Taco Bell, then available only on the west coast, while I lived on the east coast. When the chain finally opened a branch on Long Island, I made a pilgrimage, and was not impressed. I had a long wait for nothing special. Damn.

In 1972, my new wife introduced me to The Texas Taco, on Third Avenue, just a bit north of Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. The restaurant belonged to ex-Texan Rosemary Jamison, who had recently upgraded from a pushcart in Central Park. The tacos and chili dogs were superb, the prices were low, the rent was high, and Rosemary quickly disappeared. We later found her running a restaurant/museum/zoo/funhouse upstate. It was a lot of fun and the food was fine, but the menu was smaller than in Manhattan, and it was a lot less convenient.

Around 1975, things got better.

My wife and I were driving back from Chicago to New York, and stopped to visit friends in Indianapolis. We discovered a Chi-Chi’s, and had such a fantastic supper, with exotic fare including burritos, chimichangas and chajitas (a Chi-Chi’s fajita), that we delayed our trip home so we could have lunch there the next day.

Our introduction to Chi-Chi’s was the beginning of many years of frustration. I asked, begged, pestered and pleaded for Chi-Chi’s to open a branch near me in Westchester County, New York. Eventually they gave in (OK, maybe they would have come anyway), and I was in heaven – some of the time.

The food was glorious. Unfortunately, management frequently changed, and not always for the better. Except for a brief period under Carol (if you’re out there, Carol, you have been remembered), mismanagement was more common than management. One time my waiter had to run to the nearby Pathmark supermarket to buy lettuce so the chef could shred it for tacos.

Gradually, items disappeared from the menu, and then the whole restaurant disappeared. The chain shrunk, too. For awhile, there was one branch a bit west of Philadelphia, where I would stop once a year on the way back from Lancaster. Eventually, it, too, closed. The chain went out of business following a 2003 hepatitis outbreak that began at one of their locations. At this time, all that’s left of Chi-Chi’s is a salsa and dip brand belonging to Hormel. And memories. And lawsuits for hepatitis.

After my local Chi-Chi’s disappeared, I heard about an “authentic” taco joint in a Latino 'hood in nearby New Rochelle. I found the place easily, but when I entered, I was unsure if I should be thrilled or terrified to be el solo gringo en la casa.

It was so authentic, that el taco could have been made from the meat of el burro.

I was totally grossed-out by the smell and texture of the meat. After one bite, I put some dinero en la tabla and retreated a la puerta. I was relieved that the other customers did not pull out machetes or six-guns to avenge my insult to the chef, but they did laugh at me.

Since then I’ve enjoyed fajitas at South of the Border and Uno, and assorted stuff at Taco Bell.

SOTB and Uno (which is more Italian or Chicago-an than Mexican) provide excellent food and a very pleasant dining experience. Taco Hell (as grouchy cousin Dave has labeled it) seems to get orders right only about one third of the time. Good employees disappear fast, as do new menu items; but if you want something with salsa, and want it fast, and want to be able to get it in almost town in the US, it could be the right choice.

I recently got another choice: Moe’s.

Moe’s Southwest Grill is a new and growing franchise chain with about 350 restaurants that offer quick (as opposed to fast) food, with eat-in, take-out, and even catering. Everything is cooked to order, just for you. Moe’s boss is Martin Sprock (not exactly Pedro Gonzales or Jose Cuervo, but as long as the food is good, I can live with a non-Latino honcho), and Moe/Martin puts the emphasis on freshness and fun.

Actually, according to MSNBC, Moe isn't a person, but MOE stands for Musicians, Outlaws and Entertainers. The chain uses dead celebs including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and others as restaurant decor (no - not their corpses, just pictures of the performers when they were alive), and as inspiration for the names of menu items.

When you enter a Moe’s, one or more voices from behind the counter will yell “Welcome to Moe’s!” The experience is less erotic than the “Welcome to Hooter’s” welcome, but most people go to Moe’s to eat food, not to ogle at jiggling breasts.

There’s a big menu on the wall (and smaller ones you can hold in your hand) that immediately establish the fun and freshness motif. Moe has outlawed lard and animal fat, and even freezers and microwave ovens are verboten. Meals are put together in front of you. Many entrees have a choice of chicken, steak, ground beef or even tofu. Other meal variations let you cut back on carbs and fat.

You don’t order a large crispy taco, or a number seven combo.

You do order an Alfredo Garcia fajita, or a Full Monty taco, or a Puff the Magic Dragon taco or a Joey Bag of Donuts, or a Homewrecker or a Sherman Klump or an Ugly Naked Guy or a Pinky Tuscadero. If you miss Hooter’s, and crave some soft-core eroticism, you can order The Other Lewinsky or I said Posse. (Say it LOUD, and try not to giggle.) Adult meals are in the $3 - $7 range.

When you place your order, the first smiling person behind the counter uses a Sharpie marker to inscribe a cryptic symbol on a piece of aluminum foil, that will carry your meal down the line. Then he or she puts a huge tortilla (if appropriate to your meal) in a tortilla warmer. When it’s warmed sufficiently, it goes onto your personal piece of foil (turned upside down so the ink doesn’t get on your food, and so the cashier can read the inscription after your food is wrapped up).

Your meal-to-be than gradually makes its way down the prep line, as food is added to the tortilla, or other ingredients are assembled, and then the foil is wrapped around it, it goes into a basket with freshly-made chips, and reaches the cashier and you. You pay, maybe drop a buck into the tip cup, get a cup to fill with your drink of choice, fill some small cups with salsa and other dips or drips, and sit down and eat, while you dig the well-selected 1960s music.

Food choices are in several basic categories: burritos (the size of a small football), tacos, quesadillas, salads, nachos, and fajitas. You can also order soup (you may have to ask for a soup spoon – sometimes only tea spoons are in the utensil holder), rice, beans, the dreaded guacamole, extra chips, or extra meat. The menu also includes a cup of fat. At $9.99, it’s the most expensive item, but it’s a joke. I think.

If you want to eat at your own place, you can call ahead (or order online for some locations), for pick-up or delivery. Moe’s also does catering, and will set up a box of burritos, or fajita, salad or nacho bars at you home or business. If you put you business card in the bowl, you might win free catering. You can also register online for a free birthday burrito. Moe’s likes to interact. He/they want to be part of your life. You can get Moe’s shirts, hats, and trinkets; use Moe’s for fund-raising; download Moe's PC wallpaper; and even get a job at Moe’s or open you own Moe's. You can actually win free Moe's food for life, if you win Moe's amateur video contest.

Moe’s attracts a wide range of customers: people who work nearby, execs talking business, cops, bikers, boomers, gen-Xers, shoppers, travelers who exit from the Interstate, hand-holding daters, and families. It’s definitely child-friendly. Kids can get kid's meals for $2.99 or $3.99. The company says it is the largest financial corporate donor of The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, so part of what you pay to put a “Homewrecker” or "Triple Lindy" in your belly, is going to help others.

Delicious food. Healthy food. Free food. Perfect salsa. No mandatory guacamole. Big portions. No long waits. Reasonable prices. Funny menus. Funnny website. Lots of choices. Good music. Social Responsibility. It seems just about perfect. Moe’s is on a mission to put a burrito in the hand of every woman, man and child across this great land of ours, and I hope they do it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dead Jerry Garcia's estate sued Moe's for using his picture without permission (or payment) to imply an endorsement, and modifying Grateful Dead song lyrics to promote the restaurant.

I read that Moe's removed the pictures, but claimed that the pictures were a tribute to Jerry, not a phony endorsement by Jerry.

I'm no lawyer or judge, but my ruling is in favor of Moe's. I think the pictures should go back up. I'd like to see Jerry while I'm scarfing down a monster Moe's burrito.