Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Fresco’s Cocina Mexicana\r\nTortilla soup (bowl) $3.99\r\nQueso (cup) $2.49\r\nHouse steak fajitas $9.29\r\nBuild your own two-item combo $6.49
Mexicali Blues

Ain’t nuthin special about Fresco’s — except the good vibe.


Fresco’s Cocina Mexicana

7432 Denton Hwy, Watauga. 817-498-6370. Tue-Thu 11am-10pm, Fri & Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 11am-9pm. All major credit cards accepted.

f you’ve never eaten Mexican food, Fresco’s tacos would taste good. But if you know the joy of perfectly fluffy refried beans or tortillas that melt in your mouth, the food at Fresco’s will not satisfy. The fare is about as monochromatic as a Taco Bell burrito. Don’t tell that to the residents of Watauga, though: They pack Fresco’s because it’s one of the few Mexican restaurants in town, and, in the absence of good Mexican food, the mediocre obviously suffices.

If dining out means a maître d’ and a waitperson, Fresco’s again stumbles. The restaurant resurrects the take-a-number-table-service that as a kid in the 1970s I thought was really cool. What was appropriate for family dining 25 years ago is now annoying. No amount of repackaging cafeteria service as a slick restaurant genre called “fast casual” makes eating by numbers any less cumbersome.

What Fresco’s does have is a good vibe. The space reminds me of a large, round pueblo dwelling but with a vaulted ceiling over the entry. There’s a patio that leads to a large fountain, dubbed a “storyteller fountain” by managing partner and head chef David Mitchell. (Mitchell had seen a similar fountain in the mountains of Mexico that was used by tale-spinning mamacitas.) The décor inside is contemporary southwestern. Think teal, brown, rust, orange, and gold — thankfully arranged without silhouettes of howling coyotes all over the place. The chairs are very comfortable, but adult diners may not want to linger — the noise generated by the many children and babies is loud enough to try the patience of a saint.

I visited on a sultry Saturday night, and, judging by the crowds, so did most of Watauga. The line to order food filled the 20-foot-long entranceway. After placing an order and picking up drinks, the party is given a number and shown to a table. The pay-when-you-order set-up makes it difficult to consume multiple drinks. On the plus side, it does keep the tab manageably cheap.

I barely had a moment to savor the chips and my margarita (although it came from a tap, the drink was full of tequila). The appetizers, queso dip and tortilla soup, arrived a scant five minutes before the entrées.

The chips, aside from a few oily duds, were hot and crunchy, and the salsa was really terrific. It was made with roasted tomatoes and dried chiles — it had a rich, smoky flavor. The other salsas on the salsa bar were good but not as delightful as the signature red.

Queso, never a particularly interesting menu item, lived down to expectations. It had a distinctly powdered flavor, as if the cheese and spices began in a packet. It was lovely to look at — pale yellow with a swirl of green tomatillo sauce on top — but was overly salty and artificial tasting. As much as I loathe to say it, the queso could have used a shot of Velveeta cheese food.

Fresco’s tortilla soup was as delectable as the queso was deplorable. A news release announcing the restaurant mentioned that the soup used real chicken stock, and, though I’m not sure what unreal chicken stock would be, the soup was crazy-good, with vegetables like zucchini, roasted corn, tomato, and ripe avocado. It was jubilant and fresh.

For entrées, my guest and I tried the house steak fajitas, a dish designed for low-carb dieters. Too bad for us: The meat was absolutely cooked to death and served on a bed of onion, onion, and more onion, with other veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, and bell peppers tossed in as afterthoughts.

We also tried a two-item platter. One chicken enchilada with sour cream sauce and one crunchy chicken taco with beans and rice. The chicken really came up short. It was flavorless, as though it had been boiled past all reason. The sour cream sauce that we ordered on the side came atop the enchilada, and the crispy taco was as flavorless as the chicken. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I tried the beans. “Spoiled” is the word that comes to mind. The rice was slightly better, full as it was of crunchy and moist grains.

I like this place and can tolerate the modified cafeteria service, but the owners will have make the stuff on their menu taste more like real food than fast food before I’ll return for another meal.

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