Tuesday, July 24, 2012
The Mercado Madness
Restaurant Review #3.
Once upon a time, dear reader, there was a wildly popular dining establishment located on the far western end of Northwest Highway in Dallas. This restaurant, known as Mercado Juarez and featuring delicious Mexican fare with a tendency to be both fried and incredibly spicy, was all the rage. Each night, the place would be packed to the brim, meaning that if you had any real intention of being seated you had to fight your way to the all-powerful hostess, knocking aside small children and grandmothers, and try to impress her in some way that would allow you to be seated within the next 24 hours.
And really, once your party was deemed worthy enough to have temporary ownership of a table, the ensuing experience made everything worth it. The drinks were aggressive and colorful, the staff was courteous and responsive, and there’s simply nothing better than exquisitely-balanced combinations of grease, heat and abundant cheese. You would eventually be belching and stumbling your way into the parking lot, sated and happy.
But things change.
It had been years since I had entered the once-hallowed doors of the Mercado. If memory serves, the last visit, somewhere around 2005, had something to do with a work-related outing, one of those usually-vile experiences where co-workers from various regions of the country gather together to dine and pretend that we are some type of mystical family of mankind. Thankfully, those aggressive drinks helped everyone exude an air of camaraderie that buried our day-to-day grievances about certain members of our team that were too mean to live.
Flash forward to the current week.
One of our former co-workers and dear friends, a vivacious woman who had up and moved halfway across the country several years ago, was back in town for some work-related mess and she wanted to meet for drinks and dinner. I was not part of the social planning committee (and therefore absolved of any eventual regret or guilt) which handled the arrangements, but it was decided that our reunion shindig would take place at the once-fabled Mercado Juarez. Upon hearing the news, I was a bit perplexed.
Upon arriving at work the day of the scheduled extravaganza, I shared my perplexity with bestie Apiphany: “Is that place still open? Did we check on that? Has anybody even been there this decade?”
Apiphany, always the trooper: “Oh. Well, the last time I drove by the place, it seems like there were cars in the parking lot. I think. Not really sure. It’s not like somebody texted me and said ‘hey, make sure Mercado Juarez is still open the next time you go get sangria at Big Daddy’s House of Liquor and Stuff’, so I wasn’t really paying attention.” Then she smiled in her trademark way of expecting people to love her no matter what.
So it was with some trepidation that Apiphany and I fled our office building and caravanned our way to the restaurant. (We were going to be the first to arrive, since we both firmly believe that social engagements are far more important than mundane things like job responsibilities and remaining on conference calls that were pointless. Besides, we had given ourselves the highly-worshipped responsibility of arriving early enough to procure a large table in a desirable location that would maximize our enjoyment. We take these things seriously.)
We pulled into the parking lot, and we were quite pleased to observe that there were indeed other cars hither and yon in the parking lot, a positive sign that there was most likely some type of life within the establishment. (Although it must be said that the relative paucity of vehicles was a far cry from the glory days when you couldn’t even get in to the parking lot, and instead you had to park blocks away and stomp through the Texas heat to get anywhere near the building.)
We parked side-by-side, because it’s a cute thing to do, and then hopped out. I confirmed my supply of gas pills (something you must do after the age of 40 or so, especially when Mexican fare is involved), Apiphany confirmed that she had applied adequate lip gloss (something she must always be doing because we have established this tradition in my blog posts), and we trotted through the doors of the building, hoping for the best.
And then we made a very profound mistake.
To be fair, we were a little confused and disoriented, what with not having been here in forever coupled with that off-putting transition from fierce sunlight to dim interior that happens in Texas, resulting in folks being basically blind and drunk-appearing. We staggered over to one lady who was manning what looked like some type of welcoming station, only to find out that she was not the least bit interested in our needs, despite standing at a concierge-like counter and wearing a festive outfit that would normally make one think “hey, she looks like she knows stuff, let’s ask her”.
Pointless Woman (we never did find out what her actual purpose in life might be) smiled at our stupidity, then waved us around a corner in the supposed direction of someone who might care. So we traipsed around that corner and marched a football field or so to another station, where we encountered a very short woman who was probably standing on phone books. We explained our plight to her (“we just want to eat and drink, can we actually do that in here?”) and she initially appeared quite pleased to satisfy our needs. “Table for two?”
Well, actually, no. “There’s going to be about 8 or 10 of us,” I naively said.
Her expression changed to one indicating that I had just excreted something unpleasant on the floor. She pointed behind us and muttered “Wait. Over there.” Then she turned and fled the country.
Apiphany and I glanced behind us. There were several couches placed about, couches that appeared to have survived one of the earlier Mexican revolutions. Still confused, we selected one of the smaller couches, hoping to minimize our visual presence after managing to somehow offend the employees of this establishment. We perched and we pondered.
Apiphany: “What the hell was that all about?”
Me: “I guess we have to wait until everybody is here. Or she is religiously offended by the provocative lip gloss dripping from your lips.”
Apiphany, surveying the seating accommodations in the cavernous floor plan of the building. “I see people sitting at three tables. There are 97 empty tables, some of them large enough to hold all of the Dallas Cowboys. Why are they not letting us drink yet? I hate them.”
So we sat. And waited. With Apiphany receiving periodic texts from our other cohorts as they submitted status updates on their estimated times of arrival. (No one ever texts me. Probably because I never pay any attention when my pocket pings and vibrates. I just assume that I’m having another anxiety episode of some kind and I keep doing whatever I’m doing. Or take a pill.)
Then we noticed the bar directly in front of us. (We are very observant people.) Apiphany: “We could go in there and get a drink.”
Me: “If we do that, we are not going to care when everybody else shows up, and we will probably hide from them and giggle.”
Apiphany, sighing: “True, true.”
So we remained bored and unquenched for a bit longer. Then there was some type of clattering commotion and one of our co-workers, Riker, came strolling up. This pleased us immensely. Riker generally does not participate in our social drinking games, choosing instead to spend time with his beloved wife. His appearance offered up a promising form of entertainment, because we now had the opportunity to shove beers at him and make him spill about what he actually thought about everything. Yay!
Riker had another agenda in mind. “Why are you sitting out here?”
Tiffany waved her hand with serious disdain at the hostess station where the short woman used to stand before she sought political asylum in a country where large groups of people did not arrange to eat at the same time. “The serving wench hates us. There will be no alcohol served until everyone arrives. This is why people need medication.” She then made a second hand gesture that may have been expressing her disdain with the complications of life or that she simply needed medical attention and someone needed to do something about that if they wished to remain in her will.
Riker contemplated this pronouncement, along with the very real possibility that one of his co-workers may have issues that modern society cannot adequately resolve, then he chose to follow the path of least resistance. “Okay, then. What should we talk about until all members of the circus have arrived?”
Talk? Oh, this could be fun. Riker was one of those folks where you never really know the full story, sometimes coming into work as a complete ray of sunshine and frivolity, entertaining us all with his amusing exploits, and then other times arriving in an odd cloud of mystery, speaking to no one and acting very much like one would if they were a furtive government agent intent on gathering data that might lead to a prison term. The chance to speak to him on a basic human level was an opportunity to be relished.
I leaned forward, in anticipation of a conversation that would reveal all. Apiphany leaned forward with the same intent. But two seconds into her lean, she realized that the spotlight was no longer on hers truly, and she instantly went to her safe place, which was a discussion of her own merits and her self-perceived status as royalty in some manner. “Well,” she orated, making a third hand gesture that had nothing to do with anything, “It all started when I was in second grade and Mother forced me to wear a garment that was homespun and belittling, and I immediately-”
Riker leapt to his feet, briefly clutching at an amulet he wore around his neck, an evil-spirit-defying accessory that he had wisely purchased in Texarkana during another dark time when people revealed too much in Mexico-themed food establishments. “Let’s go talk to the lady who isn’t there about getting a table even though we don’t technically qualify for such a life-goal at this moment.”
That was fine by me. I leapt as well, proudly standing by his side in a defiant manner that was hopefully both reactionary and photogenic. Apiphany, on the other hand, was a bit nonplussed. How was it possible that the common folk did not want to hear the tragic tale of how she was horribly abused by a fashion-lacking parent in the mid-70’s? But she managed to pull herself together, most likely due to the siren call of free-flowing tequila, and she leapt in solidarity.
The three of us marched to the hostess station, with the firm conviction that we were willing and able to sacrifice everything in our lives in order to have guacamole and chips placed before us. Nothing could stop us. If innocent lives had to be taken, so be it.
Riker cleared his throat, in a noble and admirable way. “We’re ready for a table,” he announced, standing tall.
The person on the other side of the hostess station didn’t say anything at all. Probably because no one was standing there.
Then we heard a bang, and someone walked out of one of those mysterious swinging doors that they always have in places where you have to pay for food and questionable attempts at ambiance. The skinny little man appeared to be on his way to parts unknown, but he glanced in our direction, and paused with what appeared to be surprise that visitors had arrived who apparently needed something, which was a shocking thing, in a restaurant where people need lots of things, like food and adequate service.
Skinny Man approached the station. “Can I help you?” he asked, even though his body language said something completely different, along the lines of “do you idiots even realize that there was a misunderstanding about the refried beans at Table 12?”
Apiphany made her fourth random gesture of the evening, a night that was still very young. “We wish to be seated. Despite the fact that some errant members of our party have not managed to arrive just yet.”
Riker and I both looked at Apiphany. Had she been raised in England?
Skinny Man smiled limply, in a manner that made it very clear he was quite used to peons demanding extraordinary things at inopportune times. “Of course. Follow me.” He grabbed three menus from the stack of such in the cesspool pile of social germs to his right, then turned to march forth stoically into the wide expanse of obviously available tables from here to the horizon, his shoulders sagging with the torment of trying to figure out where we might be seated.
We followed, mainly because the narrative says that we should at this point.
Skinny Man led us to a table that could clearly seat 12, which meant that the political refugee who had previously manned the hostess station must have handed off notes to her fellow employees before going dark. Skinny flopped three menus in our general direction and then wandered off, presumably heading to a counseling center where someone could help him understand that it’s okay to be happy.
Two seconds later, our waiter arrived. (Of course he did, there was absolutely nothing else happening in the entire restaurant, and he was bored.) He introduced himself, but I really didn’t pay any attention to that part, as I was busy wondering why my wooden chair seemed to have a stability issue, so we’ll just call him Armando.
Armando: “Would you care for a cocktail?”
Apiphany: “I want the biggest margarita on the entire planet.”
Me: “And I want something even bigger.”
Riker: “A Coke.”
Armando rushed off to make arrangements for our beverage needs, while Apiphany and I turned to glare at Riker with astonishment and dismay. A non-alcoholic beverage? This clearly wouldn’t do, not if we wished to get him loose-lipped enough to gain usable office-gossip intelligence. But before we could school him properly, the rest of our friends began to arrive, meandering their way through the 7 miles of other patrons between the main entrance and our palatial table shoved up against the wall of the kitchen area.
Included in this entourage was the actual guest of honor, the divine Miss Besh Viaduct, fresh from the suburbs of our nation’s capital and all aglow with the impending joys of our reunion. I rushed to embrace her, with plenty of air-kissing and beaming expressions and the sharing of pictures of children that we don’t actually have. The rest of the entourage followed suit, and there was joy throughout the land.
Then we all sat down, requested additional fortifying beverages, ordered appetizers and entrees that appeared to be appealing on the somewhat puzzling menu, caught each other up on our life experiences and the best way to avoid jail time after ill-advised decisions, and carried on in that interesting manner that good friends do when each of them knows a dark secret about everyone else at the table but doesn’t know who else knows of the darkness. Great fun, as always.
Then we paid the checks and went home.
Notice how, even though this is a restaurant review, I didn’t actually mention anything about the food? Mmm hmm. Let’s just say that I understand how you can now park in the actual parking lot of this establishment. Got it? Cheers!