Chihuahua Mexican Grill is a relative newcomer to MacDill, hoping to mesh with other neighborhood joints to create another hip South Tampa corridor of restaurants and bars. With that in mind, they couldn't just throw some copper light fixtures and hand-painted tile around the small space and call it a day. That wasn't going to lure people away from SoHo, so they enlisted local designer Jeffrey Wilson to remake the former home of La Fonda. Which he did, with a modest budget and a vengeance.
$60,000 may seem like a lot of money, but anyone who has ever redone a kitchen and a few bathrooms will quickly realize that it's a paltry sum for an entire restaurant. Wilson let the budget set the tone, relying on simple themes and inexpensive fixes to create a space that is happy and casual, but with a put-together feel.
Deep crimson and forest green from the Mexican flag stain the walls and chairs, and those colors are repeated in almost all of the decorative touches. The namesake Chihuahua is shown in oversize posters featuring classic socialist and revolutionary iconography as well as snapshots of celebrities with their pampered pets. I guess I should feel bad about the juxtaposition of economic and political struggle with toy dogs and Paris Hilton, but I'm a dining critic, not the Political Whore.
To that end, I brought two artist friends, minted just a few years ago from Ringling School in Sarasota. (They managed to avoid the brain drain that draws their ilk to New York or Chicago, but, as a result, the free food I'm offering is gratefully accepted. Call me a patron.) They both quickly point out that the name of the designer is everywhere — from posters to the extended dog joke in the bathroom — and some real or re-created plans for the remodel are framed and hung as decoration. Very self-referential.
Still, they like the place — until the requisite chips arrive, that is, served in a shiny dog bowl. "Do I really want to eat my tortillas out of kitsch?" asked Artist Dave, before complaining about the salsa. Besides some sweet crushed tomato, there doesn't seem to be anything in the red juice that will add character to the chips. We push both aside just in time for some real food.
Instead of dainty poppers, Chihuahua's fried and stuffed jalapenos ($7) are enormous. Artist Kent crams one of the golden brown logs into his mouth, heedless of the potentially scorching heat of jalapeno or oozy cheese. Unsurprisingly, there is a surfeit of both. Gooey jack falls from the leftover breading in his hands, still attached in a long string to the food in his mouth. He doesn't cry from either the surprising amount of spice or the blistering cheese, but I can tell he wants to.
If cheese is a theme, Chihuahua's got it. Suffers from it, even. There is a thin layer of pepper in those "stuffed jalapenos," but 95 percent of the thing is Monterey jack. Likewise, a chile relleno ($3.50) is almost lost beneath a sea of the melted white stuff. We poke through and find a sad green pepper drowned at the bottom, but none of the fresh green flavor that makes this a chile relleno. Some of these menu items should be re-named simply "melted cheese."
Tamales ($6) are topped with hunks of pork stewed in a vibrant brick-red sauce redolent of cumin and peppers and, thankfully, no cheese. This is more like it, less like Tex-Mex via Wisconsin and more like Mex-Mex via Chihuahua. Inside, though, is but a meager bit of the same pork surrounded by dense and dry corn dough.
We scour the plate for meaty bits but leave the tamale half-eaten. With skin like a blistered egg roll, empanadas ($5) show promise, but one bite of the stuffing reminds me why these little pastries are not a Mexican standard. I wish for the raisins and peppers, olives and onions of its brethren in the Caribbean islands, instead of this plainly seasoned ground beef.
Chihuahua's albondigas soup ($5) — loaded with potatoes, bell peppers, onions and cilantro — is by far the best dish of the night. Tiny meatballs and chunks of potato are soft, soaked with the beefy broth, while the veggies strike that delicious balance between crisp and tender. It's better than the sopa de tortilla ($5) by a long shot. That soup has a broth that tastes remarkably like diluted chicken fat. There are a few pieces of good dark meat hidden in the broth, but also a pile of soon soggy tortilla strips and a giant slice of under-ripe avocado.
When the entrees arrive, we see one of the benefits of Chihuahua's cheese fetish. Although the thin salmon filets on the grilled fish and green enchilada plate ($13) are overcooked and bland, the cheese-filled tortilla on the side is delicious. It's doused in the tart and tangy, savory and sweet flavors of a green tomatillo sauce, instantly lightening and brightening the honkin' big hunka cheese in the enchilada.
More cheese, grated this time, spills across a white plate from the open tops of my tacos ($9). I stuff it back in and crunch through the crispy shell to find a typical collection of ingredients anchored by more of the chile pork from the top of the tamales. It's tasty, and soon gone. Chihuahua's carne asada is not nearly as good a base for a taco, the shredded bits of dry meat tough and underseasoned and piled into featureless flour tortillas.
Enchiladas ($9) are topped with nigh tasteless ranchero sauce — should have requested the tomatillo sauce, I now know — but helped along a bit by rustic carnitas. The fried pork bits, many still attached to soft or tough fat deposits, add some interest to this otherwise uninteresting standard.
While crunching through overcooked sopapillas with ice cream ($4) and spooning up dense, caramel-flavored flan ($3), the artists and I sit back to parse the experience. It's an impressive bit of design on a dime that certainly promotes the feel of hip neighborhood walk-up that the owners are trying to create. Sadly, the often bland and oversimplified food doesn't match the vibrant look.
Beautifully designed space though it may be, the pseudo-revolutionary dogs and celebrity pics tell the true tale here. Chihuahua Mexican Grill is a classic case of style over substance.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.