LEWISTON – Maybe it’s appropriate for a place at the bottom of a hill, but that doesn’t make it right ... or good.
The name of the (ostensibly) Mexican restaurant at the foot of Indian Hill is “Los Nino de la Casa Cardenas,"which is grammatically incorrect. But that’s just the start of the problems. It pretty much goes downhill from there.
We should have had a clue when we popped in at the heart of the dinner hour recently and were the only folks in the joint. Granted, a wild crew of females showed up shortly after; they were, likewise, the only ones there by the time we left.
Maybe it was just a slow night. Or maybe word is getting around that the food is not much more “authentic Mexican” than the name.
After our visit we poked around the Internet and found a couple “independent” reviews of the place. They were dotted with words like “terrible,” “greasy and “not good grease, either,” “tasteless,” “burnt” and “like Italian food trying to pass as Mexican.”
For the most part, we had to concur. Three of us, at least. My wife found her dinner to be just fine. The rest of us agreed with the writer who complained of sauce that was more like "Italian spaghetti sauce” – and likely canned sauce, at that. No heat, no kick, no bite – no anything that makes Mexican stand up and say “Ole!"
The ingredients didn’t seem fresh, nor of particular quality. The cheese – a staple of authentic Mexican – was lifeless. It seemed like fast-food nacho crud pumped out of a container. It failed to add any pizzazz to the dishes we sampled.
The refried beans and Mexican rice? We filed them under the “tasteless” category. The tortilla chips served as an opener were OK – could have used a little salt – but the salsas served with them were limp and listless. The mild version lacked taste, other than tomato. The spicy version seemed to be out of a jar.
Seasonings were definitely lacking and that’s a big drawback when it comes to Mexican eating, where you expect sauces to bite you like a rattler. This was more like a toothless garter snake.
The problem is, the prices are up there with the best Mexican places around. House specials run $10-15 per plate, but the quality doesn’t support it.
Steffany’s chicken fajita platter ($11.95) could have been quite good – had it not been burnt to a crisp on the bottom. Arriving on a sizzling cast iron pan, it was smoking so much – I kid not – that it made me cough across the table. There was a cloud of smoke that lingered for a good minute or two which is too bad, because it seemed to have perhaps the best taste of any of our dishes. At least there was some flavor, although the accompanying veggies were pretty well singed out of existence. Once you peeled the chicken strips off the pan, they didn’t have a bad flavor, even though they took the term “blackened" to the extreme.
Meagan’s chappas dish ($11.95) consisted of “sauteed garden vegetables with broiled chicken in La Casa sauce, and smothered with melted cheese.” It was a hearty dish, at least – size-wise, that is.
The problem was the sauce had a distinct flavor which gave it a much more Italian appeal than Mexican. The cheese was soft and gooey and didn’t really add anything to the mixture. In the end, it seemed more like an extremely chunky-style Italian spaghetti sauce.
I had a concoction called a “Pancho Villa,” which for $9.95 offered a flour tortilla filled with beef, a blend of cheeses and sour cream, deep-fried and topped with sour cream and melted cheese. It sounded good, on paper. It really didn’t offer much in the way of flavor, however. Maybe the sour cream overpowered everything; maybe it just lacked the proper seasoning. I do believe that ground beef would have worked better in this dish than the shredded beef with which it was made. Again, the cheese did nothing to save it. Bland is the best word I could come up with to describe it, just blah.
I really expected more. After all, the old Casa Cardenas in downtown Niagara Falls used to be one of my favorite Mexican places – especially their tasty salsas. This place didn’t come close.
On the plus side, Teresa enjoyed her taquitos ($10.95), which consisted of three corn and flour tortillas filled with beef (you could have any of these dishes with either beef, chicken or veggie fillings), a blend of cheeses and topped with sauce and melted cheese.
She said her dinner was delicious, and could not understand what all our fuss was about. To each his own, I guess.
Now that I think of it, she did have a nice big margarita with her meal ... maybe her taste buds had been softened up sufficiently?
Anyway, que sera, sera.
The service was quite good, the ambience fair, the parking plentiful. Just wish the food had been better.