Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mexican Food Factory (Revisited)

Mexican Food Factory
1032 N 4th St., CdA
(208) 664-0079

I've been strolling into the Mexican Food Factory, one of Cd'A's oldest (if not THE oldest) Mexican eateries, since the 1980's or so. A longtime favorite of mine, I gave it the old Get Out North Idaho treatment with a review in December of 2007. Hold up. Almost seven years ago? Lawdy, slow down Father Time, you're making me dizzy and I can't keep up!

Anyway, in my review, which was written back when these things were actually published in the Sunday Spokesman-Review, I gushed about the lovely deep-fried oil scent that permeated the air inside. I mentioned the delight of witnessing the tight-knit staff in action, their friendly banter adding to the organic feel of the restaurant. And I practically melted like cheese while talking about their enchiladas and tamales, describing their food as the best Mexican I'd ever had north of San Jose, Cali-forn-i-a.

Of course, I've dined at the Mexican Food Factory several times since then, but it wasn't until yesterday that I noticed they'd cut my review out of the paper all those years ago, framed it, and hung it on the wall. I always find it very sweet when I see this but, my dear Mexican Food Factory, I must warn you. Unfortunately, my experience at your restaurant yesterday has left me with the distinct impression that things in your eatery have gone severely pear-shaped, and you may not want to tack this particular review up on your wall in a cute little frame.

I don't know, It just wasn't the same. Certainly everyone deserves a day off, and maybe that was the case, but the familiar friendly faces (mainly the owner and his buddy that worked there forever and ever) that I mentioned in my old review were nowhere around, replaced by a set of random teenagers who seemed diligent but detached, present in the room physically, but whose eyes and robotic demeanor led me to believe they were either stuck in a permanent daydream or had crossed that line with one too few cups of coffee for breakfast.

Not that they did anything specifically wrong, they just didn't have the banter and nuance of the previous staff, who were older, more experienced, and much more down-to-earth with a clear invested interest in making sure they were projecting positive energy and putting out a great product. Still, the girl who took my order and delivered it to my table was friendly enough, and even more so after she (I think) realized that I was the guy in the photo in the newspaper review clipping on the wall.

Sentimental value is real nice and all, but the decor inside the dining room is exactly as it was in 2007, which was most likely how it was in 1997 get the idea. It's not totally super tacky in there or anything, but it seems stale and dated, and if I were in charge of that situation, I would have given the place some fresh love and redecorated ages ago. Minor complaint, but sometimes these things make a large impact on customers' likelihood to return after a long absence.

I wasn't in the mood for anything too heavy and saucy before work (I'm heavy and saucy enough myself). I just wanted something simple, satisfying and quick. Admittedly, my order of two regular old ground beef tacos and a small chips-n-cheese was very basic, but I figure that if a restaurant can't tackle their simplest menu items with panache, it's highly likely there are going to be problems all the way up to the most intricate and expensive items.

And speaking of expensive. Oh. My. Gawd. What on earth is going on with the prices on Mexican Food Factory's menu? Seriously. I can see paying these prices for something very uppity and tapas-y and gourmet and chi-chi and whatever other synonyms for "fancy" you prefer to insert here. However, weighing the amount I paid against what landed in front of me, I could have gone to (shudders) Taco Hell for a more satisfying meal at a more realistic price.

Yes, I realize it is the ultimate cruelty to compare a Mexican restaurant's output to a garbage-gut factory such as Taco Bell, but the MFF truly took me down that path and left me feeling disappointed, bewildered, and a little taken advantage of. The quality of the product has very noticeably slipped while the prices have climbed like kudzu on the side of a broke-down Georgia whorehouse. This place has posted a sign which throws shade at the local taco trucks for having more health code violations on record than their zero, but my wallet tells me it would prefer to seek more authentic, delicious Mexican food at a realistic price, despite the risk of an occasional extended stay on the cool porcelain throne.

My two crispy tacos were $2.75 each. Maybe that doesn't seem like it's going to break the bank but here's what I got. Regular old industrial store-bought taco shells. Once upon a time I swear they were pan-fried on premise with fresh tortillas deep fried to perfection, creating that delicious soul-satisfying deep cooking oil aura in the room. I did notice on their facebook page that the authentic pan-fried tacos currently limited to only Fridays. Both my tacos didn't have their generic-brand shells survive beyond the first bite without breaking into shards, leaving me to fork up a very pedestrian pseudo taco-salad.

A small hint of lettuce was splayed gingerly on top (no tomatoes to be found, just lettuce), a vague sprinkling of shredded cheddar was implied, and the taco meat was so utterly bland and boring it made me wonder if they'd been robbed of all their spice jars by a cruel and savage flavor thief in the middle of the night. I even took a forkful of that taco meat by itself, just to make sure my tongue wasn't having a reverse hallucination or something. Sure enough, it tasted like plain unseasoned ground beef. The love! What happened to the love? Their taco meat used to be legendary.

When I placed my order, I requested a side of sour cream (fifty cents) to go with my chips and cheese. I even said "could I get a side of sour cream to go with my chips and cheese?". Instead, the sour cream ended up on my tacos, and I had to look at my receipt again to realize I had been charged fifty cents per taco for this mistake.

I don't mind sour cream on my tacos, but this was a gigantic mess - they had smeared a squirt of sour cream atop the top layer of lettuce and then they wrapped the tacos tightly in yellow paper (why? I didn't order my food to go!), so the sour cream ended up stuck to the taco paper, congealed there with the lettuce in globs instead of in my taco. Not fun and very messy to try to unsuccessfully scrape it off the paper and shove it back in to where it belonged. Ugh.

Taco Bell may not be a five star dining experience, but their tight quality control would never allow for a customer to suffer through a sour cream mess such as this. I realize I'm beating this point like a dead burro into the ground, but at $1.39, a crunchy taco supreme at the Bell is a much better value at half the price of the similar-in-size but inferior in taste Mexican Food Factory specimen. Sad but true.

The chips and cheese were exactly that: tortilla chips, which were okay but I'm not convinced they were as fresh-made as they once were, and a small amount of melted, microwaved cheddar served in a little American Flag paper boat (what, no Mexican Flag boats?). Some might have balked at the uneven distribution of the cheese within the chips, but personally I kind of like huge semi-melted globs of cheese to chew on like salty bubblegum. I'm weird like that.

Still, most of my chips were served  bare naked and cheese-free and would have been better with the side of sour cream as I'd requested. The clincher here is that this wee, simple item comes at a cost of $3.95. Seriously, I could probably go to Winco and spend $4 on a bag of tortilla chips and a chunk of cheese that would allow me to indulge myself on ALL the cheese globs til siesta. Again, the cost vs. value simply does not measure up.

So, to sum up my bill, I had two basic boring tacos and small snack boat of tortilla chips with maybe 1/2 cup cheddar, plus a $2 Mexicali Cerveza for $13.68. Now, that isn't enough money to land on the fainting couch about, but I left feeling like I'd been a bit bent over the proverbial barrel. On a more positive note, the highlight of my lunch was Mexican Food Factory's unbeatable hot sauce, which I poured heavily on everything while resisting the temptation to stick the bottle's nozzle in my mouth and give it a squeeze like it was a baby baba full of Patron tequila. Mmm, this was the one thing that was as delicious as I remember and fortunately, they sell bottles of it to go so you can pick some up then go douse your Taco Bell Quesarito with the stuff. (Meow!)

I know I shouldn't be so bitchy without revisiting some of their other more elaborate menu items, but like I said, if they can't do basic items well, I'm not so sure I'm willing to spend $10.45 on an "enchilada style" burrito or whatever. I'd really like to think I'm just being way overly harsh and grouchy with the MFF and that I just visited them on an off day (when they totally spaced spicing their meat) and that I know such items such as the Beef Colorado Burrito ($6.50) or Fish Taco ($5.50) or Tamales ($8.50) are more than likely as delicious and legendary as ever.

And when I am in the mood for a heavier lunch, I shall return for a more signature item of theirs and the MFF will reign victorious and I will re-evaluate and update this review with all the good news I can fit. At least I hope so, for I find it rather depressing that such a beloved local food institution could fall so hard, so fast. But, for now I am left with a deflated heart and emptied wallet and an unexplainable hankering for a Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.

Post note: ...and apparently I'm not alone with my less-than-astronomical opinion of the MFF recently. I posted a short blip about my mediocre experience on my personal facebook page yesterday, and received the following comments. I think I can speak for the others here when I say: We love you, Mexican Food Factory, please take heed of this review and these comments and do a Gordon Ramsay style rescue on yourselves before it's too late!


Kisa Johnson said...

I believe they were sold a while back to a new owner weren't they? Which may explain why everything is awful now? :( I know they were closed for a time, so perhaps that's the case. I've personally never eaten there, but it's sad to think that Taco Hell tastes better than this! :( This is one place I wont be visiting any time soon.

Teacher With Tuba said...

Stopped by today for a breakfast burrito. Honestly, it was the best breakfast burrito I've ever eaten. It was huge (I definitely could have split it). I'm partial to the chicken at Mexican Food Factory, and it didn't disappoint when paired with scrambled eggs, tater tots, and salsa in the breakfast burrito. Everything was fresh and it was served quickly. In addition, everyone working there was friendly and attentive. I'll definitely be back!

Scott Cardwell said...

Please, let me throw down on this. As a former employee and close personal friend of Dan Franks, (yes, the same Dan of the Franks family that has owned MFF since 1981)and Galen, (the same Galen that has worked in that kitchen for over 12 years and now manages MFF)I am more than slightly offended by your review. Let's be real, every single item you ordered was made in that kitchen from scratch. The cheese you get on those tacos? Comes in 40 pound blocks that they hand shred. The lettuce? Hand shredded. The shells? Trust me on this as I have HOURS of personal experience; they are fried daily in-house. You want a Taco Bell taco for $1.37? Be my guest. But comparing the two tacos is asinine to say the least. You enjoy the taco carts on 4th street? Then go hit those carts, ask to see their health report and food handlers permit (which Dan Franks has hanging on his wall) and enjoy a cheaper meal. Oh wait, quesadillas at those places run $5-$6 as well... To obviously exaggerate the shortcomings of your meal is petty and a disservice to Dan. Tell you what, get your ass out of bed at 5 am and run on down to MFF some weekday morning to get a breakfast burrito from Dan. He will go ahead and stop prepping food in the back to come out and make from scratch the bacon and scrambled egg burrito that you will get filled with cheese and tater tots that you can then drench in their signature salsa. And when you get your cup of fresh, hot coffee, and pay your $5, (which is less than you will spend at McD's for breakfast) then leave, Dan will go back into the back to shred more cheese, or cook another giant pot of refried beans, until the next tinkle that announces a customer has walked inside looking for that little slice of the Southwest. Please sir, keep your negative opinions to yourself unless you are willing to give Dan a chance to address your concerns. By the way, that $2 beer? You would be charged at least $4 if you bought it anywhere else. And what taco truck or Taco Bell has a beer license that you can buy a cold one at? That license right there could run into thousands of dollars yearly. When was the last time you could buy a bag of chips at the store for under $4? Cheese for under $6? It looks like you'll pay $10 for that chips and cheese right there. So yes. I am offended by this article that shows you obviously wielded your pen as if you were fighting some monstrous injustice. But it just as obviously shows that you have poor taste and could use some class. The problem with "food critics" such as yourself? Well, anyone can pop a blog online and write a review and call themselves a "critic." I've seen 5 year olds that can do that. Doesn't make you a better human being, and it sure as hell doesn't make you right in your review of MFF!

Anonymous said...

Well sadly my experience mirrored the article and must say I will not go back... bland food poor service = no return to MFF. You can rant all you want but experience cant be undone by all your words.

Mary hogan said...

I've literally brought friends all the way from Boise to eat here and everyone has been addicted on the spot. This is highly unaccounted and one persons opinion. I feel their constant line, and wait prove the mass feels differently. Best Mexican food of my life.

Anonymous said...

@Scott Cardwell: I am not the author of this blog, nor have I ever met him. But firing off a rant at a food critic/blogger over a negative review is NOT the way to drum up more business. It just makes you come off as angry and defensive. A critique of a place isn't an attack, it should not be taken personally. It is only a post about one person's experience with a place at that time. Ranting about it does nothing. What you SHOULD do if you are a former employee and friend of the owner is point out this review to the owner so he can THEN decide if 1) It may have merit, 2) It is just one bad review and has no merit.

Or to put it another way, if you want to see what happens when a restaurant review by a critic or blogger is taken as a personal attack? Go watch the "Amy's Baking Company" of Kitchen Nightmares.

Alisha Anderson said...

The point is Mexican food factory is not what it used to be anymore!! The prices now would be okay if the quality of the food was what it used to be, that place did used to have a family quality that reminded you of home and love.

I love Dan and have known him since I was 14 as a customer there which was 21 years ago!!! I won't go there anymore. The restaurant has gone down hill, it's insulting to be expected to pay the money they charge for what's on the plate. I want the old Mexican food factory back! When the food they made wasn't just about the money, and throwing something on a plate quick style. When their food was made with love, passion, and inspiration!! Lortus was the cook back then and she was amazing. I would love Mexican food factory to come back to life and be that place again.

Anonymous said...

@Alisha: Excellent point. As an aside, I'm the same person that made the comment to "Scott Cardwell". My point to him was that any review of any place like a restaurant should be taken as critique, not a personal insult. Scott, despite being a former employee and not even working for MFF now (albeit still a friend of Dan Franks) took such as an insult. So thus my advice that he instead show Dan Franks the review so the owner can either take such as constructive criticism or dismiss as he sees fit.

Anonymous said...

mexican food factory is such a pile of garbage with a side of salsa only the "close personal friends" are willing to defend it. HAHA.