Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: Lunch $5-8; dinner $7-14
Fare: Mexican and Mexican-American
Atmosphere: Roadside cantina
An undeniable factor in our family dining routine is Jason's cravings. He'll be engaged in some other activity -- say, painting a window or driving on black ice -- and he'll announce, with great conviction: "I could really go for some pot roast." And so it is decreed: Pot roast shall be procured, and pot roast shall be eaten. There is no argument, distraction or delay. Springing from some powerful, primal neuron firing deep in the core of his brain, Jason's cravings will not be denied.
It was his recent desire for Mexican food that brought us to Mendoza Express, a tiny, family-run place in the classic immigrant tradition. Owner and head chef Abe Mendoza is an Acapulco native who brought his family north to prosper by operating a Mexican restaurant -- in a former luncheonette across from a suburban cemetery. But as unlikely as it sounds, he appears to have chosen wisely, as the restaurant's 20 seats were all filled the night we were there.
Despite the name, Mendoza Express is more than a take-out counter -- it has an intimate seating plan, red and green tablecloths, and cheerful decorations. We were welcomed immediately with a basket of still-warm homemade tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa. The chips were crunchy and barely greasy, and the salsa -- made with puréed canned tomatoes, a wise choice in winter -- was slightly spicy but not too hot, a pleasant warm-up for the meal to come.
Mendoza's menu is a curious blend of gringo-friendly tacos and burritos and less familiar, but perhaps more authentic, dishes like devil shrimp and crab cakes a la Veracruzana. Unsure of which approach to follow, Jason allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of Abe's mom, whose favorite item the menu proclaims to be the Tampiqueña enchilada and steak. When it arrived, we could see why. The thin ribeye was thoroughly grilled but retained its beefy character and tender texture. The ranchero-style blend of sautéed onions, peppers and mushrooms on top were a vivid and flavorful complement to the steak. Chicken enchiladas in their baked tortillas offered a lighter accompaniment; they were filled with juicy shredded white meat and generously topped with lettuce, cheese and salsa verde. This so-called "green sauce" was subtly spicy, enough to flavor, but not overwhelm, the tender chicken inside.
Angelique also had trouble deciding what to order, but Mendoza's has a ready answer for this dilemma: the combo. She ordered hers with a vegetarian burrito, cheese chile relleño and a taquito. The burrito included the same colorful blend of vegetables that topped Jason's steak. Sautéed to release their flavors, but still crunchy, these veggies formed the bulk of the burrito filling; rice and excellent, velvety refried beans were served on the side.
The chile relleño -- a whole poblano pepper filled with queso fresco, dipped in egg white, then fried and topped with red sauce -- was a deceptively simple combination. The fried coating and the cheese tempered the spiciness of the chile and the sauce, achieving a subtle play of strong and mild flavors in each bite. However, the taquito, a chicken taco in a crisp flour wrapper, lacked enough sauce or spice to make it memorable.
At Mendoza Express, we found Mexican food to satisfy cravings both broad and sophisticated. The food is fresh, high-quality and authentically prepared, while the friendly service and bustling atmosphere evoke everyday dining south of the border. Abe's choice of location seems to be fitting after all: His restaurant is still the cozy luncheonette that once was there, now with a spicier menu.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars