There are times I wish I never had that chicharrones burrito in Albuquerque. It was tender pork carnitas, refried beans, a sauce of chorizo simmered in pequin chile, topped with cheese and pork cracklins, wrapped in a big, soft flour tortilla. ¶ It cost $3.75, but I’m still paying for it. That burrito, and other meals in Austin and L.A., was so flavorful, so vibrant, that I’m left unimpressed with Mexican food in Buffalo. ¶ So there we are at Don Tequila, the Mexican family restaurant in Allentown that opened last May. It’s competent food at a good price, and cheap margaritas by the yard. ¶ It reminded me how satisfying Mexican cooking can be, and it made a roomful of people happy. It’s the best family Mexican restaurant inside the city limits, and a welcome option for Buffalonians. It didn’t scratch my Albuquerque itch, but that’s my problem.
Sergio Mucino, a veteran restaurateur with restaurants in Pennsylvania, moved into Allentown after his Orchard Park location was damaged by fire. He turned the former K Gallagher’s into a brightly decorated space that draws families, couples and parties. Cantina Loco is only four blocks away, but it’s an upscale bar that serves Mexican food, not a family restaurant.
Don Tequila has lots of standards, with dips, chips, combo platters, fajitas, steaks and pork chops. Its cooks will smother anything you like in cheese sauce. There’s no fish or seafood besides shrimp. Veggie options are basic, but there.
Chips and salsa are free and abundant, even if the chips weren’t warm. Two add-ons that I highly recommend are a chunky, lightly seasoned guacamole ($3.75) and chorizo dip ($5.99). The dip is a worthy indulgence because the highly seasoned Mexican sausage has been cooked in the cheese sauce long enough for its chile flavor to bloom. This is a dip that can threaten your ability to consume the rest of your meal, so caveat eater.
A big goblet of shrimp cocktail ($11.95) had medium shrimp in a thin, sweet tomato sauce with a whisper of horseradish, plus avocado, cilantro and onions for crunch. While I sighed for more heat, others enjoyed its gazpacho-like coolness.
Mary ordered the No. 7 combo platter ($8.50), including a taquito, chile relleno and shredded beef quesadilla. It was average tasty all around; the chile was a green bell pepper topped with ground beef and cheese, but I liked the shredded beef better.
Cat asked for enchiladas de mole ($10.75), three corn tortillas wrapped around chicken and napped with dark brown sauce with notes of sweet chocolate and bitter chile. The plate included fresh pico de gallo, sour cream and rice. She loved it, right down to the “perfectly cooked” rice tinged with tomato and fortified with corn and lima beans.
Rick ordered carnitas ($12.95), braised pork with rice, beans and a small plate of pico de gallo and guacamole. The pork had been cooked for a long time until sweet, browned then mostly shredded, and mixed with soft griddled onions and a splash of cheese sauce. It was delicious, my favorite plate of the night, and I stole more than was really polite.
My chile verde ($12.25) was the same braised pork, in a green tomatillo-based salsa. It had a tinny, long-cooked flavor I didn’t enjoy, but I ate all the meat, packed into flour tortillas. (Saved some of that chorizo dip for the moment. Oh, Albuquerque.)
We didn’t have dessert, but we did have margaritas, which was close enough. Don Tequila sells pitchers of margaritas for $15.50, and tables sported yard-tall plastic margarita dispensers, which reminded me of college. So did the flavor of the house margarita, redolent of lime Kool-Aid and budget tequila.
Sangria ($6) was Manischewitz sweet with chunks of lemon, lime and maraschino cherries. The Paloma ($6) of tequila, lime and grapefruit soda was so puckery I envied the Kool-Aid.
Don Tequila’s servers are a hustling crew that aims to please, though we had a few muddled moments and plate confusions. Their underwriter would no doubt like to see them put down rugs or something to tame the slippery vestibule when snow falls. Otherwise we were comfortable.
Don Tequila is like a neighborhood diner that happens to serve Americanized Mexican food – inexpensive, fast and good.
Don Tequila: 7 Plates (Out of 10)
Great dips, solid slate of Mexican standards drawing crowds to Allen Street family spot.
WHERE: 73 Allen St. (885-2501)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.75-$11.95; combo platters, $8.50-$9.25; entrees, $9.25-$21.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.