By far the easiest part of my job is rounding up dining companions. No matter how forcefully I emphasize the rigors of a review dinner—there's no ordering what someone else at the table has already claimed or bogarting a dish, even if you were the one to find the world's most inspired crab au gratin squirreled away in a sides column—people will pretty reliably skip out on their friends' gallery openings and cancel important meetings to case a new restaurant and eat a free meal.
I recently found the exception to that rule when I was asked to review Los Cabos, a tidy, audience-pleasing Mexican franchise in Addison. Most everyone I invited to join me there suddenly remembered it had been awhile since they'd dusted their bookcases.
Snobs, I thought. Finding undiscovered culinary masterpieces in downtrodden neighborhoods is so 20th century: The real challenge for the contemporary critic is to locate soul in the suburbs. Somewhere, surely, there's an antiseptic, Applebee's-aping restaurant with light-up pagers and glossy photographic menus that serves something fabulous. Does a restaurant really deserve to be doomed to irrelevance because it serves jalapeño poppers?
Los Cabos Queso $4.49 Sweet corn tamales $6.49 Fried avocados $9.99 Cheese and onion enchiladas $8.99 Steak fajitas $14.99 Grilled swordfish $18.99
I'll leave that larger question for another day, since dinner at Los Cabos has at least momentarily dimmed my optimism. If you've ever been stuck overnight in a city where all the restaurants cluster around a single highway exit, and decided pseudo-Mexican sounded better than sort-of-Italian, you can probably imagine Los Cabos. The restaurant peddles the same innocuous version of south-of-the-border fun that propelled sales for nearly three decades at Chi-Chi's—and still does at Norman Brinker brainchild On The Border. Extended families, office parties and middle managers in love come here for cheap margaritas and mariachi music.
But here's the thing about Los Cabos: Oklahomans love it. Los Cabos is Tex-Mex by way of Tulsa, where Jim Blacketer in 2005 opened his first cantina. As the company's website explains, "His vision was to bring a resort feeling" to town. He repeated the trick in Jenks, opening another waterside Los Cabos featuring a cabana bar and occasional visits from a balloon-twisting clown.
Both restaurants have apparently delivered on the presumably focus-grouped promises that the enthusiastic voice on the home office's hold message chirps: "We're an affordable getaway...fun for the entire family!" Oklahoma Magazine has bestowed the titles for best salsa, best margarita, best outdoor dining and—for four years running—best Mexican restaurant upon Los Cabos. That's a pretty serious endorsement.
The Addison location is the first franchisee-owned restaurant in the Los Cabos system, and the first chance for Texans to assess just what's gotten their northern neighbors so excited. I'm guessing the franchising project called for standardization that's leeched a bit of the personality out of the Los Cabos concept, since I saw only the faintest flashes of what might have inspired Oklahomans' intense devotion. The food was mostly decent, but very much in line with the unenthusiastic fare offered at the mishmash of other chains making global cuisine approachable for American diners. If I was one of those snarky, cynical critics, I might tell you that a Yelp poster recently gave the place four stars, admitting she prefers the tacos at Jack in the Box.
Los Cabos wasn't too busy when I was there, but the restaurant's clearly ready for a crowd. A huge booth-lined carpeted dining room leads to another huge dining room which finally leads to the outdoor patio with a circular bar. When the guests are relaxing in the right key of mellow and the weather's not too hot or too rainy, the patio does have an all-inclusive tropical resort feel. The patio's walls are high enough to blot the sound and sight of the nearby tollway, and there's live music—a guy with his guitar, the night I was there for it—on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Almost every day's associated with a special at Los Cabos, so if you're a fan of tacos, beer or margaritas—which sell for $3 on Ladies Night—you might want to time your visit accordingly. The low-octane margaritas are passable, and, surprisingly, not too sweet.
Los Cabos' menu is color-coded, with about a dozen descriptions printed in red, rather than black. Whatever you do in Vegas, put your money here on red, which indicates the dish is considered a signature item. Almost without exception, the red dishes are a notch more creative and flavorful than the other dishes on the menu.
It must kill restaurateurs with franchising dreams to realize that potato skins aren't compatible with their ethnic-food theme. Unless, of course, there's a way to miraculously re-appropriate their chosen cuisine's ingredients in service of a stuffed potato-skin riff. That's what Los Cabos has done with its avocado halves, listed—in red—as a fried avocado appetizer. The avocado's partly scooped out, filled with seasoned ground beef, fried and topped with a liberal dollop of sour cream. The avocado I tried was cleanly fried, and it looked pretty on the plate. Same goes for the corn cake—more reminiscent of a very sweet vegetal breakfast bread than a tamale—which was tucked into a knotted corn husk.
A queso dip made with tangy white cheese was agreeable, as were the salsas served with the fragile white corn chips. The enchilada sauce was fairly good. But perhaps the best thing I had at Los Cabos was the fajita chicken burrito, distinguished by a fresh-tasting flour tortilla and fat chunks of tender grilled chicken. Indeed, the straight-up fajita plate might be the way to go at Los Cabos: The beef I tried was flavorful and cooked correctly.
Fish seems like a sensible choice at a restaurant named Los Cabos, but I didn't have much luck with it. Our server vigorously steered us away from the ceviche, but failed to save us from the grilled swordfish, which aromatically announced itself about six feet from the table. No amount of lime butter can disguise an old fish.
Still, I'm not sure the aging fish was any worse than the floppy chile relleno, made with a flavorless poblano pepper nearly the size of a tennis ball can. The kitchen seemed to have missed the frying step entirely, so the plain-tasting breading congealed weakly to the soggy pepper beneath a bland ranchero sauce.
Desserts were similarly lackluster, although I don't think the kitchen's heart is in it: Serving Carnegie Deli cheesecake at a Mexican restaurant—standard New York-style, not dulce de leche or anything—strikes me as a cop-out.
Michael Banks, Los Cabos' director of operations, told me guests in Addison are enjoying the restaurant: "The comment cards are phenomenal," he said. "They like the food; they like the atmosphere; they like the ambiance."
Still, Los Cabos has decided to pull back on its franchising plans. Maybe corporate honchos missed the clown when they visited the Addison location. Or maybe they tried the chile relleno.
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"We want more control," Banks says, explaining that the concept behind the Oklahoma stores is too sophisticated to parlay through a franchisee. "We don't think we can manage it as well as a franchise."
Banks says he isn't sure yet what will become of the Addison restaurant, Los Cabos' sole franchise location. But here's the great news: A company-owned Los Cabos is coming to Dallas. Los Cabos is finalizing paperwork this month on a space in Grapevine near the Bass Pro Shop. Banks says the "hacienda-style" restaurant will open in April.
I can't wait to eat at the real Los Cabos. And I'm dragging my skeptical friends with me.
Los Cabos 17225 Dallas Parkway, 972-267-2739, www.loscabosok.com. Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$