1032 N 4th St., CdA
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 and...you 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!