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Bye, George

Margaritas and desserts (and a car packed full of friends) are the best ways to justify the Causeway pilgrimage to GEORGE'S HACIENDA Y CANTINA.



George's Hacienda y Cantina and its Mexican-American restaurant compadres are probably the best places to sample creative renditions of "La Bamba" on Saturday nights. If the goal is to dine on the authentic cuisine of Mexico, however, you're likely to leave with a sense that there's something wrong -- wrong with the state of Mexican restaurants in the area, wrong with the food you just ate and wrong with whatever might be transpiring in your digestive tract afterwards. Culinarily speaking, restaurants of George's ilk seem to function mainly in order to fulfill masochistic cravings for unlimited baskets of warm tortilla chips, melted cheese and its sub-species, the cheese product, sour cream on everything and mixed drinks served by the pitcher.

This state of affairs is exactly how someone gets desperate enough to barrel across the Causeway the moment she catches wind of rumors that George's is serving the best Mexican food on the Northshore. Anyone else who feels this pull should pack enough people into the car to justify a few rounds of margaritas upon arriving. It could be the most memorable course, not because the food is exceptionally bad, but because most of the food at George's is not exceptionally anything, including Mexican.

Besides, your friends are likely well conditioned for the sort of restaurant experience that George's offers. They'll help polish off the free chip baskets and salsa (served in plastic crocks) that at first bite tastes plainly like spicy tomato paste with cilantro and then grows on you with the tenacity of ketchup. With Coronas in tow, they'll be wrist-deep in hot orange sausage, refried beans and melted white cheese -- Ito's Nachos -- and they'll eliminate every last wedge of fried flour tortilla served with the guacamole dip. If guacamole dip lengthened with sour cream sounds more bleak to you than a hollow pinata, you'll be all the more grateful for the straight-up avocado mash served with many entrees.

Here, at the entrees, is where the acute problems often begin at Mexican restaurants like George's, not in the least because you're already full. The difference between a great Mexican dish and a sub-standard one can be absurdly simple: a few squeezes of lime, a sprinkling of fresh cilantro, real chiles, red tomatoes. Which makes it all the more difficult to forgive a restaurant for products that don't taste fresh, sauces that have no oomph and side dishes that amount to little more than plate filler.

George's Shrimp al la Mexicana is essentially a stir-fry of shrimp and vegetables that would taste at home on any Chinese lunch buffet. Still, it might pass muster if the shrimp were fresh. The same goes for a shrimp-stuffed poblano chile relleno bound in scrambled-egg batter. Second-rate shrimp don't rate at all when you spend 20 minutes suspended over Lake Pontchartrain to meet them. A grayish, chewy filet mignon marinated in "special sauce" -- Carne al la Parrilla -- had come a long, long way from its days as vital muscle. And it was unclear whether thin strips of carne asada curled up at the edges gained their funky, slightly Asian flavor from age or a unique marinade.

George's kitchen slathers ranchero sauce over entrees with the passion the French have for buttering their sandwiches. If only the timid, tomato-based sauce had butter's aplomb. Huevos rancheros -- two fried eggs trapped between corn tortillas and smothered in ranchero sauce -- was the hands-down best entree around a table of six because, when ordered "hot," the sauce came bolstered with fresh slices of jalapeno.

If refried pinto beans are standard issue and rice is dry all the way to crunchy, George's desserts get not one grumble. Sopapillas (deep-fried dough) are flat and round like pancakes; they ooze honey and melt scoops of vanilla ice cream on contact. And you would never guess that George's slick, velvety flan came from the owner's home kitchen, as one server reported. This server advised me well in ordering the spicy pulled chicken flautas at lunch, and she spoke Spanish to a table near mine. A dinnertime server, on the other hand, didn't seem familiar with the menu in any language.

Sure, George's sweet potato-orange walls and hand-painted tables surpass expectations for comfort in a strip mall chip joint; sure, everyone who dined with me left one belt notch fuller than she was upon entering; sure, George's can satisfy a certain, sometimes masochistic, craving. But in a metropolitan area that's no further from Mexico City than it is from Detroit, it doesn't seem right that there isn't more of the simple, happy food of Mexico -- more tender carnitas, more cactus salads, more intense mole sauces.

While George's food wouldn't have moved me if it was the only restaurant in its class, I admit to making it a fall guy in this case -- for its peers and its customers. George's story is so common that you have to wonder whether the diner who continues to pay for this kind of food is as much to blame as the restaurants that continue to cater to them.

In a metro that's not that far from the border, it's a mystery that restaurants like GEORGE'S HACIENDA Y CANTINA don't offer more inspired Mexican fare. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • In a metro that's not that far from the border, it's a mystery that restaurants like GEORGE'S HACIENDA Y CANTINA don't offer more inspired Mexican fare.

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