Moe’s Southwest Grill sounds like it could be from an episode of “The Simpsons,” featuring the show’s longtime bartender attempting to cash in on patrons clamoring for Tex-Mex. Instead, it’s an Atlanta-born restaurant franchise that recently arrived on the East Lansing food corridor across from Michigan State University, serving up tacos, burritos and fajitas.
Instead of riffing on the TV’s longest running sitcom, though, Moe’s uses other hits from the past few decades as fonts of inspiration. A “Seinfeld” fan will immediately chuckle at the menu’s Art Vandelay burrito or the Close Talker salad, with other references made to ‘80s slapstick comedies and the TV show “Friends.” For the easily amused, Moe’s at least has the nostalgia angle going for it. As for the food, well, let’s just say a laugh track wouldn’t be out of place.
Like most fast casual restaurants, Moe’s diners order at the counter, which has the feel of a Subway franchise. Behind a window, employees take orders as they piece together plates, occasionally belting out a succession of “Welcome to Moe’s” — the manager, I’m sure, initiates the mandatory enthusiasm.
My companion enjoyed the range of ingredients to choose from — grilled mushrooms and onions, green peppers, seasoned rice, beans (pinto and black), tofu, meats, cheese, lettuces and more. We went with the medley approach to ordering: the Overachiever taco, the Fat Sam fajitas and the Close Talker salad. Each of our selections came with a choice of protein, and the shredded pork was perhaps the highlight of the meal. The meat was juicy, tender and had a Southwest smoky flavor.
The pinto beans were well cooked, though I started noticing a trend as I realized they tasted similar to the pork. The rice, and especially its seasoning, confirmed my suspicion. The dry little grains tasted as if they had been packaged in a cardboard box for far too long, and the seasoning-from-a-bag flavoring that came along with them was a bit industrial for my palate. That seasoning might not have been so bad had it not tasted like it had been used on the mushrooms. And the onions. And the green peppers. And, it seemed, like nearly everything else I tried.
I’ll take a moment to praise the onions, less because of how great they were cooked (not bad, caramelized nicely) and more because of how they stood out against the half-cooked mushrooms, which were watery and rubbery.
Overall, I didn’t mind the fajitas. They were packed and held a little acidity from the otherwise mundane guacamole, a little creaminess and another shot of tartness from the sour cream, and, disappointingly, that seasoning, lingering like a particularly crass episode of “Family Guy.” Yeah, I ate those fajitas, but I’m not sure how I feel about myself afterward. The soft flour tortillas didn’t help. They had a nice, freshly cooked (i.e., warmed) smell to them, but had the texture and all the flavor of plastic wrap. The tortilla chips, likewise, held promise until they made it inside my mouth.
The guacamole had a hint of lime and the consistency was spot on, but like the seasoning and tortillas, it just didn’t have the soul of something that was made by hand. According to their menu, Moe’s insists on freshness. Somehow my taste buds weren’t convinced by the rhetoric.
The atmosphere is fun enough with bright colors and classic rock piped throughout the dining space; I happily tapped my foot to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” and later to some Pink Floyd. But the festive ambiance couldn’t make up for the overhyped food.
I can’t blame anyone for wanting to give Moe’s a try, and perhaps, like my companion, you’ll like it more than me. If you want to enjoy the trip, though, my advice is simple: curb your enthusiasm.
Moe’s Southwest Grill
551 E. Grand River Ave.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m . to 11 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
TO, OM, $