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Campo Verde in Arlington, Inside a Kaleidoscope of Crazy

No, that's not a picture from inside a kaleidoscope. That's actually from inside a restaurant, one that is bejeweled within an inch of its life in hundreds (perhaps thousands) of strands of lights and tinsel. How festive, you say? Yeah, I took that picture last week.

In what might be called an Arlington "landmark," this unabashedly over-the-top, Tex-Mex den is a like jumping into the spin cycle with crazy. At then end, you're rinsed in melted orange cheese. Trust me. That happens.

James "Smiley" Williams opened this spot more than 30 years ago at the corner of Pioneer and Brain Spasm in central Arlington. Sticking to the circa-1970 motif, Campo Verde (not to be confused with the recently shuttered Campo Modern Bistro) lives in a bit of a decorating time warp, but it's actually sort of cool. Retro is back, right? Well, that just means Campo was always ahead of the game.

The food is iconic no-holds-barred greasy plates of tacos, enchiladas and gut-busting burritos. Free pre-dinner chips are tossed in spices and served with a side of bright orange, tepid cheese sauce, which you beg yourself not to eat, but usually do anyway. The beans are heavy, and I think contain ground meat. Everything else is just as it should be. With spoon half way to mouth, after four bites you'll probably ask "Why am I eating all this?" but then you don't answer because your mouth is full of beans.

(Side bar: It's a fascinating that Campo Verde is packed almost every night of the week and even overflows on the weekends. Yet, Campo Modern Bistro didn't even last a year. Simmer on that for a while.)

A feature that brings a lot of people in is an elaborate toy train track that circles near the ceiling. Kids dig it. It's one of many hundred thousand distractions, in addition to cow skulls, native American art, flamingos and stained glass.

The holiday décor, however, is a beast. I don't know how long it took them to wrap every object in the restaurant with tinsel, but it certainly must have been days, if not weeks. A waiter revealed to us it won't come down until March. So, yes, you have plenty of time to make it over.

Yelp reviews are polarizing. Diners either love it or hate it. You're either on the crazy Campo Verde train or your flipping it off after it leaves you stuffed and bloated aside the track. Most arguments are centered around that neon orange cheese "sauce." Approach with caution. Or amusement.

I can't say I liked it. Too much of everything. In the end we spent entirely too much money to feel absolutely miserable and exhausted. But, I guess they're doing something right. Thirty years and going strong.

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