|By Allan I. Ross|
Food Fight tackles Mexican mainstay
You’d think a decent guacamole recipe wouldn’t be that difficult to pull off — just smash an avocado, add a bunch of spices and dip your chip in, right? But oh man, is there ever some wiggle room for getting it so right and getting it so, so wrong. This month, the Food Fight gang descended on five Lansing-area Mexican restaurants (and one non-Mexican tavern) to determine which was serving the best guac.
In this utterly unscientific and ridiculously subjective taste test, each restaurant was graded from 1 to 10 in five sections. Those scores were then averaged together to get an overall rating for the restaurant. Categories included cost per portion, taste and authenticity and a wild card X-factor category either adding to or taking away from a particular establishment based on that judge’s overall reaction, which in this case ranged from the attractiveness of the waitstaff to the number of high-def TV screens nearby to distract us. This bears repeating: utterly unscientific, ridiculously subjective. So without further ado, let the countdown begin. Andele, arriba!
El Azteco: 4.7 out of 10
At $7.50, this was rated the worst value of the lot. We found “no creativity whatsoever” in the “texture-less” “paste,” and the “burnt chips” did the “cold green puree” no justice. Our “prompt service” was provided by a “friendly and engaging” waiter, but one of us said the setting “reminds me of a Mexican holding tank,” detracting from the experience. Conversely, one of the people in our group hadn’t stepped foot in this location in 30 years and was “blown away by how much better it is than before.” We’re going to have to consult the town archives for proof of that one. El Azteco, 225 Ann St., East Lansing
Los Tres Amigos: 6.1 out of 10
Of the three Los Tres locations around town, we opted to visit the one on Grand River in East Lansing. One of us found the $2.79 guacamole here to have a “nice consistency” with a “good mix of onion and tomato.” Everyone else was unimpressed, however, with reactions ranging from “nothing to write home about” to “inedible.” As for authenticity, “at least you can see it’s made from real avocado and tomato,” getting us “closer to ol’ Mexico,” but it still seemed “more oily than it ought to be.” The similarly “bland chips” appeared to be “out of a bag,” for which we were charged $2 because we didn’t order drinks or dinner. They got docked points for that, though we understand they gotta make a buck off all the cheapskates out there somehow. But they made serious X-factor points when one of the servers heard what we were doing and asked us to pass a love note to his wife at another restaurant. All together now: “awwwwww!” Los Tres Amigos, 1227 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing
Tavern on the Square: 6.4 out of 10
It should come as no surprise that the only non-Mexican restaurant on the list (which was chosen because it has a special guacamole appetizer on the menu) rated the worst for authenticity, with an abysmal 2.8 average. Other than that, it was a moderate hit with our judges, who “enjoyed the citrusy zing” and “loved the taste.” The $3 price and the fact that the staff re-opened the kitchen for us scored them high on service and X-factor, but the “music was just too loud” for us to have any kind of serious discussion about our meal. As we were eating, a nearby guest scoffed at our selection, saying he thought, “It’s the worst. I’d rather eat mayonnaise by the spoon.” Where was he at the beginning of the night? We can use opinions like that. Tavern on the Square, 206 S. Washington Square, Lansing
Cancun Mexican Grill: 6.7 out of 10
“Mmmm…chunky!” “Nice subtle spice.” “Muy rapido!” Cancun Mexican Grill may have suffered from a “striking similarity” to the guacamole preparation style and décor at Los Tres Amigos (including identical furniture) but it squeaked ahead in almost every category across the board, including value. For $3.25 we got a “massive gravy boat” filled with guac that disappeared in no time flat. We all picked up on the heat being packed, leading some of us to guess it had a “jalapeno bite” and others suggesting it was “chiles doing their job.” Either way, it had a “real Mexican feel” that made for “a nice couple” when mixed with the “awesome salsa.” Cancun Mexican Grill, 1754 Central Park Drive, Okemos
El Oasis: 7.3 out of 10
For being “a glorified taco stand,” El Oasis was certainly the dark horse contender to beat on this outing. You “don’t get much” for $1.50 (including chips, which are extra), but the “onion-y” guacamole had “big chunks of tomato and avocado” with an “overwhelmingly authentic and delicious” style. It also had “the best chips of the bunch.” The only thing we could fault El Oasis for was atmosphere, because “who really likes milling around a parking lot on the east side?” But if you can handle it, it’s definitely worth a quick detour. El Oasis, 2501 E. Michigan Ave. (in the parking lot next to Capital Imaging), Lansing Township
La Señorita: 7.7 out of 10
Authentic was the word here, with the tableside guacamole service receiving a whopping 9.6 average. We were able to watch our $6.99 order assembled from scratch, including the cilantro that “saved the day.” It did take a while to get everything together, so the fastest you could probably ever get an order would be 10 minutes, but several of us noted that it was “worth the wait.” The best part? “If you pay close attention, you can get a free amazing guacamole recipe.” And that love note that we were supposed to pass from that server at Los Tres? This is where she worked, but sadly we missed her by mere minutes. We did give it to one of her coworkers who assured us he’d get it to her, so hopefully our Romeo got some brownie points the next day. One more time now: “awwwww!” La Señorita, 2706 Lake Lansing Rd., Lansing Township
There were some other places we either couldn’t get to as a group or were out of guacamole that day. Handy’s Market at 424 W. Willow St. in Lansing only makes it occasionally, so we were out of luck last Wednesday when we did our judging. Similarly, our grand voyage didn’t land us in Old Town until after 9 p.m., so we missed Pablo’s Panaderia’s legendary guac by less than 15 minutes. And we automatically excluded national chains, disqualifying Chipotle, but supposedly it has some of the best around. Sounds like it’s worth a trip.