Monday, June 6, 2011

Atilano's Mexican Food

Atilano's Mexican Food
218 E. Appleway, Coeur d'Alene

After extensive and truly difficult  research, self-styled "burrito expert" Cameron Coates has ultimately come to the conclusion that San Diego style burritos are the best burritos in the entire nation. In a 2007 Interview with the San Diego Tribute, Coates was asked, "What defines the San Diego burrito?" His reply was somewhat vague but basically understandable:
I have no idea. I can't figure it out. I think it's that they keep it really simple. They use two or three ingredients and really fresh tortillas -- grilled tortillas, not steamed. But why only here and not in L.A.? In San Francisco and a lot of other towns, they put beans and rice and everything in a burrito and it becomes a mess. It's the restraint, the clarity of their vision.
There seemed to be a lot of ballyhoo in the air surrounding the opening of the new Atilano's Mexican Food in the former KFC building on Appleway in Coeur d'Alene, with foodie know-it-alls suddenly acting like nobody in town had never had a damn good burrito unless they'd had an authentic San Diego style burrito. In fact, during my first chaotic experience at the eatery, on their second full day of business, a couple of strangers ahead of me in line were going on about how their families had relocated to North Idaho at some point and just never managed to find Mexican cuisine quite like what they'd gotten used to back in "America's Finest City".

The gushing comments that occupy the Facebook page originally set up for Atilano's downtown Spokane location (opened last year) is even full of hints that the buzz was something to pay attention to. Sadly, after two meals there myself and witness reports from a handful of others who've braved the throngs of people who've been crowding in to check out the new place, I have to say that I'm a bit baffled by the hype and that ultimately, Atilano's isn't quite the casa de la deliciosa cocina that we were quite expecting.

I've never been to an authentic San Diego burrito mecca, so I can't say with complete certainty how Atilano's compares to one, specifically the physical atmosphere. It's hard to tell if the owners just decided to leave things unfinished for the time being, or if they were consciously trying to emulate a place you might actually find in an especially broke-down, dozed-off section of the barrio.

The exterior is nice enough, with a splashy new yellow and red paint job screaming "we're authentic!", but open the door and walk inside and certain thoughts occur. Who broke into this poor old KFC, stole all the decor, then spray-painted over all the logos with a can of red spray paint? Was it a mad electrician with a fetish for exposed wires? (There are literally open outlet boxes with wires sticking out of the walls in several spots.) Can I still get a "famous" fried chicken, corn and mashed potato bowl and a side biscuit and coleslaw? Other than the employees, the only hint of old Mexico was the tejano music floating through lightly the air, and frankly, the place could use some serious sprucework and love on several levels.

Which leads one toward the hope that they were so concentrated on making fabulous food, that fancying up the raw state of the interior was low on their list of things to do. Both times I showed up, it was clear Atilano's staff was working their nalgas off to crank out the fruits of their massive, all-encompassing menu for the curious, hungry folks standing at least six people deep waiting to order. A dozen or so cooks were working the line behind the counter, and their high-speed frenzy of Spanish shouts and commands helped lend a vibe of excitement and authenticity to an already bananas affair.

Evidently, there wasn't even one moment available for someone to pause for a bit of cleanup time, as the kitchen floor was visibly littered with dirty, stepped-on chunks of meat, rice, and vegetables, which I can't say was the most inviting sight to see. When I made it to the front of the line, the cashier was friendly, but flustered and distracted and I had to repeat my relatively simple order three times as she kept wandering away from the counter as I was ordering (mid-sentence, actually) to tend to some other thing going on.

Perhaps it was just the high level of business giving Atilano's the opening week jitters or something, and I really did want to be awestruck by my lunch, but I came away pretty much unimpressed.

Atilano's menu is basically like this: if it's fast Mexican food, they have it. In fact, it's initially a daunting task to even decide what to get what with several dozen combo meals, around 15 burrito options, a pinata full of side options, and anything one could ever make by randomly combining tortillas, cheese, beans, rice, sauces, lettuce, tomatoes, and you know the rest. It's nice to have some selection, but there is certainly something to be said for simplicity ( I'm looking at you, Taco Loco) when you've got a dozen customers waiting at the counter looking up at the menu board indecisively, holding up the show.

In addition to being open 24 hours a day for those post-tequila-marathon munchie sessions, another noticable perk at Atilano's are the reasonable price points, with most of the burritos in the $3-$5 range and the combo plates all around $7. Curiously, the "salsa bar" consisted of a bowlful of pre-made cups of salsa verde, a bowl of red hot sauce and a scoop but no cups to scoop it into, and some spicy pickled carrots. That's it. Both sauces tasted fine, but in my book, three items does not a salsa bar make.

My initial visit led me to an encounter with some rather bland pork enchiladas, some rather bland rice, and some rather bland refried beans. The corn tortillas (I wasn't given the option of flour) blanketing the enchiladas were chewy and the dish included big chunks of some kind of rather bland green pepper situation, a fact which wasn't mentioned anywhere on the menu. A friend complained to me about this later as well, as she is a green pepper hater and said she was totally "turned of by those gross, slimy things." The chicken hard taco wasn't quite as rather bland only after liberal applications of the salsa verde to cover up for the fact that the chicken inside was, yes, rather bland. Actually, the chicken taco was greasy enough to past muster overall, but I really did drive away with a case of completely-bland-itis.

As I was leaving, I looked again at the Atilano's sign and realized that I might have missed the whole point. "San Diego's Best Burritos" I read, reminding me of what the whole fuss was supposedly about in the first place. I returned a few days later to see if maybe this might be the key to the mystery of the eatery's appeal, this time avoiding the madness of the dining room for a twenty minute long trip through the drive through.

Indeed, their Adobada (Spanish for "marinated") pork burrito was a giant and much tastier affair. Still, it did vary from the expert's description at the beginning of this review by utilizing a steamed, not grilled burrito, which didn't really hold up well and made for a sloppy mess as I dripped its contents all over my desk, floor, and self when I got it home. It wasn't at all rather bland, in fact the flavorful, rich pork, beans, potato chunks, and pico de gallo came together in a pretty okay, "maybe this place isn't so terrible" kind of way.

It's hard to besmirch the good name of tater tots, and they didn't, but when they are sold under the guise of "mexi-fries", one expects a few sprinkles of seasoning instead of just Plain Jaunita specimens. Still, after all was said and done, the highlight of both meals was the large cup of delicious horchata, a staple Mexican sweet beverage that's irritatingly hard to track down in this area.

About 5/8 way through my Adobada burrito, I felt a sudden attack of an "oh God, I'm uncomfortably full", not-so-fresh feeling that sent me straight to the couch, where I felt the need to recover for the rest of the evening until crawling into bed with a case of the ughs still lingering. I woke up the next morning with a tummy that was still quite iffy and wanted to print up a souvenir tee-shirt which read, "I survived the the Great Atilano's Bloat of 2011".  


Laura Tolin said...

OMG! Thank you for saving me and my husband (I am a native CA- East L.A. to be exact) from what sounds like an awful experience. Sounds like the best part of your visits was the musica de tejano. The best carne asada is the roach coach at 4th and Best in the Lyle's parking lot! Next to that is DeLeon's Market in Spokane. At deLeon's you can get the authentic ingredients to make it yourself....

Anonymous said...

Being a So Cal native, I found Atilano's to be quite sub-bar. I got a basic bean and cheese burrito. It was quite large, but also very greasy. I was hoping CDA was going to get a good burrito place, but this place doesn't cut it.

Anonymous said...

I Ate there yesterday at lunch. I had pretty much the same lousy experience. The older gentleman behind the counter had a difficult time understanding my "3 rolled tacos" order. I had to repeat myself 3 times and still wasn't convinced that I would get the what I ordered. The salsa bar was out of carrots...I did notice a six inch deep layer of potato peels, vegetables and other junk on the kitchen floor as well. I waited about ten minutes and received my order. Too bad they stuffed my crunchy tacos on a bed of wet lettuce, essentially turning the corn tortillas to mush. The rice was dry and the beans were SUPER salty. Yuck. Don't plan on going back. I also noticed the strange electrical situation and wondered how they got a permit to open.

North Idaho Native said...

You really want a good burrito? One you will always crave after you've tried it? It's just up the road at Taco Works, 510 Best Ave in Cd'A. Just a tiny little portable unit, but has the bomb diggity of all burritos!!! My fav: ham & cheese breakfast burrito!!!

Anonymous said...

GO judge taco bell! I'm a San Diego Native and I love this place. Carne Asada Burrito.

Guillermo said...

This place is OK for an inexpensive Mexican meal that is at least somewhat authentic. The carne asada I had had a lot of gristle I had to spit out but the flavor was good. I like the beans here. The bulk chile arbol salsa is good considering, and the pollo asado & adobada is usually good.
For Coeur d'Alene this place is the best. I can now get lunch here whenever I'm in town instead of being disgusted with the usual (non) selection.
I lived in El Paso and spent a lot of time travelling throughout Mexico. A burrito is something you can eat with one hand. These monster burritos that need 2 hands or a full array of utensils to eat are an AMERICAN gimmick.

Jawbobo said...

Well Give them another chance b4 you go writing them off seriously they have only been open like 2 months and ive already been there 20 or more times lol & im not Mexican lol But you really just have to order the right thing my fav is the super breakfast burrito or The Mary-Tiera burrito with steak & jumbo shrimp awesome awesome awesome! especially for only $6 bucks it weights like 2lbs lol

T-Dogg Malone said...

I lived in Northern California (Sonoma County) for the past decade. Atilano's place not compare to the Nor Cal Taqueria's at all. The salsa is not good either in comparison. My first visit I ordered a Carne Asada burrito to go and once I got home I had a Carne Asada Torta (Sandwich), no burrito...My second visit I got the Adobada burrito, which I thought was decent at best. I've been in a lot of arguments with San Diego natives about the difference in Nor Cal and San Diego burritos. They are always talking bad about the pinto's and rice put in Nor Cal Taqueria burritos...If I am basing my argument off of Atilano's, I'm pretty sure I win. We need a Nor Cal Taqueria in CDA!

GSD lover said...

I'm not a taco, burrito, mexican food fan AT ALL! BUT...A friend of mine stopped in there and bought me a burrito that was AWESOME! HUGH though so it lasts both dinner and lunch the next day. I didn't find it greasy at all...just incredibly delicious. Now I have several of my friends going there with me at least once a week. I LOVE THE PLACE!!!

Anonymous said...

just got back had the super breakfast burrito. i wont be back.

Babymama said...

I agree this place was REALLY bland!! Its the worst... Rancho Viejo is the best in CDA but if you want good mexican go to JOELS in sandpoint.

bn196 said...

Guillermo again,
I'm getting cold feet here. Used to be hit or miss on the food as to fresh or leftover tasting. Now it's leftover tasting all the time.
Gonna have to be pretty hungry to come here any more.

Anonymous said...

Ok I have read only one comment where the person was from San Diego and they said "yes go!" So I am going because nobody in San Diego orders what everybody else said they ordered there. I lived there and nobody I ever went with to a burrito shop ordered anything but a Carne Asada burrito or a California burrito. I think menu choice might be the issue here.

Back in the USA said...

I have only one word: YUKKOOOOOO!!!
I went there with my daughter and we got horrible food. My daughter ordered a chicken burrito and we had to send it back because there was NO meat. It all tasted old and bland.
Not coming back EVER!!!

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