Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mexican Food Factory

Mexican Food Factory
1032 N. 4
th St Cd’A
(208) 664-0079

The first thing I noticed when I made my snowy entrance into the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the Mexican Food Factory in midtown Coeur d’Alene the other evening was a dense, hungry-making aroma that I can only describe as deep-fried enchantment. It’s a dank hot oil fragrance that some restaurants might do everything to try and mask. Here, it hangs heavy in the air in proud memoriam of every golden-brown delicacy that ever emerged vaingloriously from the sizzling vat.

It’s the kind of smell that gets your tongue juices flowing and your tummy quaking and lets you know you’re in for the good stuff. Like the classic cartoon image of the wispy aroma cloud making the come-hither motion with its finger and pulling someone by the nose into the kitchen, you’ll find yourself adrift with sudden fits of appetite.
Asking around recently, I was totally amazed to learn that quite a few people were completely unaware of the existence of the Mexican Food Factory. Even some people who’ve lived here since the Ray Stone Administration gave me a blank look when I brought up the name. I guess I just took it for granted that everyone in town was blindly devoted to the charms of this tiny family-owned place by now, having had nearly three decades to come in and check it out.

On the other hand, the ones that did know about the restaurant couldn’t preach enough about the wonderful food. Some even confessed to repeatedly committing the sin of gluttony there and testified beatifically about the zesty enchilada sauce. The religious references here seem apropos since it seems the MFF is a cult thing, and I’m proud to include myself as one of the faithful disciples who worship at the feet of the droopy-eyed senor statue on the front step.
It can be a busy place at times - I’ve seen it totally loco with people, all six tables filling up fast during the lunch or dinner rush. No lingering allowed, just eat and go so the next party can have a place to sit and enjoy their chicken taquitos. It’s intimate but cramped, and there’s no cushy waiting area, just a wobbly bench which occupies the small space between the front door and the order counter.

The modest dining room is unfancy but festive with chili-pepper table cloths and colorful, folksy wall treatments. I normally come in and get my order to go, a process which is always fast and can be expedited even further by calling ahead and cruising through the drive in window to pick up your pungent, steaming brown bag of savory goodness.
When I came around the other night for a fix, owner Dan Franks was leaning out the drive-in window chatting with a curious customer, perhaps a new inductee into the cult. “Well, we’re going on 28 years here, pretty much a local institution.” I can find no evidence to argue their claim that they were actually Coeur d’Alene’s very first Mexican restaurant. I do have vague memories of the place being run for a long time by an actual Mexican family, and even as recent as a few years ago remember seeing the old Madre working her magic with kitchen implements that appeared to be relics from the late Teotihuacan era.

To his credit, the only changes Franks has made since taking over the place have been slight and seamless improvements. The menu and cooking methods remain virtually unchanged, but the place has been given some badly needed deep cleaning and cosmetic renovations.
It’s seems like most of the staff have been working here for quite a while, and they come off as a tight-knit, chummy bunch. It’s kind of like visiting someone’s cool older brother and his friends at their crash pad and they’re just chilling, cracking jokes and watching the game, inviting you in for a cold beer and some good grub. It’s a relaxed, casual ambience, but nobody is at all lackadaisical and service is always fast.

It’s nice that they seem to actually enjoy what they do, an attitude all too rare in the world of food service these days. A bulletin board behind the counter with dozens of slips labeled “credit” shows how regular customers (junkies?) are treated like trusted old friends, allowing them to eat now and pay later.
Although the convivial vibe and fanatical cult of regulars are certainly a major factor in the eatery’s longevity, it’s the superb quality of the food that makes the Mexican Food Factory such a notable establishment. The menu is basic and simple, and it’s impressive the variety of dishes they concoct using a fairly minimal selection of fresh ingredients. You can’t order any Ceviche or Camarones en Mole here; it’s all about the basics. There’s honestly no other local Mexican diner that does it exactly the way they do it here.

It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I’m always reminded of some of the wonderfully authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints I visited on trips to San Jose, California several decades ago. I gathered similar comments from another MFF cultist who claims the Food Factory “serves the best Mexican food outside of Cali, and mu
ch better than most Mexican food I’ve had in Cali.”
Tacos include your choice of spicy ground beef, chicken or the craveworthy shredded beef, with the meat itself going for a dip in the deep fryer whilst tucked inside a gently crisped corn tortilla, then topped with finely shredded cheddar, icy cold thin strips of lettuce and topped with tomato chunks. The enchiladas and tamales are unimpeachable, smothered in twangy Colorado sauce and a hot lava flow of melted cheese.

Burritos are a
specialty here, with fifteen available options including nearly every
combination of beans, meat, cheese, and rice possible. Personally, I have a fetish for the Shredded Beef and Cheese Burrito, which is the only burrito on the menu to hit the hot oil before being served, an act which creates a cosmic fusion between the meat and cheese, causing glazed eyeballs and burrito nirvana to overcome this particular diner.
The Chili Rellanos are listed on the menu as a seasonal item, but I don’t recall ever having a problem ordering the exquisite red-sauce covered, pan-fried, omelettey egg and spicy green pepper treats. Combination platters are served with fluffy seasoned rice and homemade refried beans, which are sinfully lardy and fresh daily.
Along with the whole MFF cult, I’ve found evidence of a sub-group known as “the Guacamole sect”, people who might order three or four $1.50 sides of the green stuff per meal. It’s no wonder, since they make simply the best, brightest avocado and spice mash-up around. It’s so fantastic; I think certain crazy people order it just to eat by the spoonful, all by itself, like a dessert. Unique also is the texturally thin but super flavorful house salsa, available for you to abuse in big squirt bottles on each table.

There’s really nothing not to like about the Mexican Food Factory, and as long as they continue offering their singular style of Mexican delights to the drooling devoted, they’ll remain one of this town’s worst kept secrets.


raymond pert said...

I'm coming home for the holidays pretty soon and now I plan to retreat from the pleasures of family holiday treats and pop over to CdA and the Mexican Food Factory. I wish I didn't live six hundred miles from MFF as I write this. I'd be there right now.

Thanks for such a splendidly written review and for tipping me off to a joint I knew nothing about.

As always, keep up the good work.

bn196 said...

Was one of the first customers at opening way back when. Always got beans and chips cause they were very good. The salsa was good too but it has changed for the worse.
Dear MFF:
Atilanos is going to put a dent in you.