Mexican in West

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    There's only so much you can do with beans, cheese, rice and a tortilla. It might be called by different names -- burrito, taco, fajita -- but unless the layers are put together well and the ingredients taste distinctly fresh, it's all pretty much beans, cheese and rice.

    Seven years ago Atlanta businessman Martin Sprock opened the first location of what would become the 140-store Planet Smoothie chain. Moe's Southwest Grill, on the ever-expanding food corridor of Sand Lake Road, is Orlando's first taste of Sprock's latest endeavor, serving freshly made tortilla-wrapped ingredients with unusual names. The chain already has spread from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Mississippi and North Carolina. "No freezer, no microwave" is a boast the restaurant makes, and it claims to prepare everything from scratch.

    Seven years ago Atlanta businessman Martin Sprock opened the first location of what would become the 140-store Planet Smoothie chain. Moe's Southwest Grill, on the ever-expanding food corridor of Sand Lake Road, is Orlando's first taste of Sprock's latest endeavor, serving freshly made tortilla-wrapped ingredients with unusual names. The chain already has spread from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Mississippi and North Carolina. "No freezer, no microwave" is a boast the restaurant makes, and it claims to prepare everything from scratch.

    Paintings o f people such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon look down on you while you eat, complete with sayings like "Give Beans a Chance." There's sort of a Subway sandwich-shop approach to the meals. Once ordered, food is built in front of customers, with choices of add-ons like hot salsa, olives and fresh cilantro. Sounds good -- better, actually, than the finished product. There's not much about the fillings, including the meats (chicken, steak) and tofu (a pleasant surprise), that make them stand out. A sprinkling of cold cheese on top of cold beans isn't terribly exciting, no matter how clever the names.

    Paintings o f people such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon look down on you while you eat, complete with sayings like "Give Beans a Chance." There's sort of a Subway sandwich-shop approach to the meals. Once ordered, food is built in front of customers, with choices of add-ons like hot salsa, olives and fresh cilantro. Sounds good -- better, actually, than the finished product. There's not much about the fillings, including the meats (chicken, steak) and tofu (a pleasant surprise), that make them stand out. A sprinkling of cold cheese on top of cold beans isn't terribly exciting, no matter how clever the names.

    Most of Moe's items are named after TV or movie characters. "Art Vandalay" ($4.69), a vegetarian mix of rice, beans, cheese, salsa and guacamole, is from "Seinfeld." The "Pinky Tuscadero" salad ($4.99) is a throwback to "Happy Days," while the "Sherman Klump" ($2.99), a cheese and salsa quesadilla, reminded Sprock of "The Nutty Professor."

    Most of Moe's items are named after TV or movie characters. "Art Vandalay" ($4.69), a vegetarian mix of rice, beans, cheese, salsa and guacamole, is from "Seinfeld." The "Pinky Tuscadero" salad ($4.99) is a throwback to "Happy Days," while the "Sherman Klump" ($2.99), a cheese and salsa quesadilla, reminded Sprock of "The Nutty Professor."

    Quesadillas are actually the best thing on the menu; a quick toss on a hot grill makes the ingredients come together inside the now-crunchy shell.

    Quesadillas are actually the best thing on the menu; a quick toss on a hot grill makes the ingredients come together inside the now-crunchy shell.

    By definition, fajitas ($6.99 to $7.99) include grilled onions and peppers, but not at Moe's: If you don't order them (for an extra 80 cents), all you get is steamed tortillas and a dish of meat, lettuce, salsa and cheese. Moe's breaks away from the salsa-bar trend and offers only two; a green tomatillo and a hot sauce that looked so watery I was afraid to touch it.

    By definition, fajitas ($6.99 to $7.99) include grilled onions and peppers, but not at Moe's: If you don't order them (for an extra 80 cents), all you get is steamed tortillas and a dish of meat, lettuce, salsa and cheese. Moe's breaks away from the salsa-bar trend and offers only two; a green tomatillo and a hot sauce that looked so watery I was afraid to touch it.

    It's up to the frozen margaritas to make most of the menu items more exciting.

    When judging Mexican food, it helps to have some ex-Californians in your camp. So when I headed over to the Taquitos Jalisco near MetroWest, I called on the most suitable contender I know – my mother. This is a woman of the belief that you can't grow up in Los Angeles without knowing what real Mexican food tastes like. So she dragged us to a veritable shack on the corner of Melrose and Vine weekly, and it was there that my relationship with Mexican food began. Today, my Mexican connoisseurship flourishes except for one problem – there are so few true Mexican restaurants in Orlando. With Mom's approval, Taquitos Jalisco is now on my shortlist.

    For those on the west side of town, the sizzling platters and the mariachi band at the flagship Taquitos Jalisco in Winter Garden (1041 S. Dillard St., 407-654-0363) are still wildly popular and worth the drive. But the new Hiawassee Road location opens up the restaurant's authenticity to a new audience.

    One of the things I love about a Mexican restaurant is the instant-gratification factor: Sit down to a basket of chips and bowl of salsa and start eating. Unfortunately, chips and salsa, like the breadbasket, often fall under the obligation curse. Salsa should taste magical – the alchemy of plump ripe tomatoes, fresh green cilantro, spicy peppers, sweet onions and the hand of someone special – and Taquitos' does. I couldn't stop piling it onto their warm chips and popping it all into my mouth.

    When I opened the menu, my eyes immediately fell on the enchiladas ($8.25), and there was no resisting the pull of childhood temptation. These three soft corn tortillas were stuffed with Mexican cheese – briny, stretchy and tangy all at once – and then set in a sea of delicately smoky enchilada sauce. My husband, also a former Californian, ordered three delicious tacos ($5.99): the carne asada (grilled beef), the pollo (chicken) and, my favorite, al pastor (marinated roast pork.) My mother went for the mole poblano ($8.99), and it was undoubtedly one of the best I've had in town. The deftly layered spices were balanced, the top note being chocolate; Taquitos Jalisco's mole coats the tongue like a soft piece of velvet.

    We all remarked on the tastiness of the refried beans, another dish that many Mexican restaurants treat as an afterthought; this kitchen has it mastered. We finished our meal with a smooth and lush flan ($2.75).

    Here's a definite sign of the true Mexican restaurant: Menudo is featured on their weekend menu. Only an authentic Mexican restaurant would venture into the strange and tumultuous land of dishes made out of a cow's stomach lining. A Mexican friend once told me that menudo is the best cure for a hangover – I vowed to come back on a hung-over Saturday.

    Taquitos Jalisco knows that simplicity is the name of the game in good Mexican cooking. Fresh, quality ingredients are mashed and molded and smoldered into something transformative. They make you feel like whoever made them enjoyed an afternoon in some outdoor Mexican kitchen grinding spices, roasting peppers, hanging out with family, living the simple life. Mom totally agrees.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Tijuana Flats in Downtown Orlando.

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