If, thanks to Hollywood, one is likely to compare the seeming randomness of destiny to a Whitman's Sampler, what then stands in for life's certainties?
Perhaps it's too local to gain large-scale popularity, but I would suggest RJ Mexican Cuisine. When you ask waitresses at this popular and longstanding West End restaurant for assistance, you know what you're gonna get. And although what you get may be of little real value, their resolute, Palinesque performance when cornered is worth the cost of a meal.
One evening, for instance, our server responded to a simple "does it come with" by flashing a dumbfounded expression and peering over my dinner companion's shoulder to check the menu. Later she trotted out the dessert diorama, bragging that "homemade Blue Bell ice cream" topped several of the treats. Another time the server brought out some guacamole and scooted off with our basket of chips. When asked which was better, the burrito or chimichanga, she blinked and said, "One is fried."
RJ Mexican Cuisine
Ceviche de cameron $8.99
Ahi tuna $9.99
Pork wings $10.99
"Beef" burrito $13.99
Chiles Rellenos $15.99
Pork tamales $15.99
St. Louis ribs $17.99
RV tenderloin $21.99
Top-shelf margarita $10
She then embarked on a reasonable impression of the inept (and rather pickled) waiter in Peter Sellers' classic comedy The Party: repeatedly bypassing a table of diners desperate to pay their bill as tip-off at the American Airlines Center approached, for instance, and turning dinner at our table into an amusing Dadaist fray. Confusion set in when, after specifying entrées, I ordered appetizers for our three-top—ceviche, ahi tuna and something called "pork wings." She eventually returned with my guests' main course plates and a parfait glass of leftovers from the bait-and-tackle shop in glistening scarlet goo for me.
Ceviche de cameron resembles a school cafeteria adaptation of the old-fashioned shrimp cocktail rather than a delicate serving of citrus-cured fish. They provide you with a spoon to scoop up the dripping mess, sundae-style. Cloying sauce covers an artless mound of pale shellfish, the only nods to authenticity being a clump of avocado and partial wedge of lime suspended in the thickened, tacky tomato puree. The ahi tuna arrived 10 minutes later, as my companions continued to pick away at their mains and I sat entrée-less—several slices of blatantly flavorless fish, two puddles of sour cream rendered to taste like spiced-up library paste, a ramekin of achiote glaze worth shoving aside and surprisingly spicy and complex mango salsa, the latter impressive in spite of soggy fruit.
Like political scandals and Watergate, it seems the folks in charge of writing menu descriptions at RJ Mexican decided any individual sticks of meat rubbed with some kind of sauce must take on a cute, well-known suffix. Under ordinary circumstances, the "pork wings" would go by a less whimsical name...ribs, perhaps. For these are merely three or four tender, hefty ribs separated and smeared with a none-too-pleasant mole that wears on your tongue like fine, wet clay and tastes more of rancid apple butter than bitter and spicy chocolate. Of course, apples and pork generally complement each other nicely. In this case they act as neighbors holding onto a tedious grudge. But the red onion rings piled on top are near irresistible: Although a tad greasy, they crunch and snap with a wonderfully fulfilling brittleness and sweet-sharp onion flavor.
RJ Mexican always had a solid reputation. These days, however, the kitchen seems to be wandering—so you end up with plates of meaty, juicy pork ribs undone by a clumsy mole, disastrous tuna over intricate mango salsa, guacamole speared by three slices of brioche, a rack of St. Louis-style ribs...
This is a sizable rack, presented on a compartmented platter with chunks of grilled vegetables and an interesting side of julienned carrots cured in brown sugar. The biting caramel flavor strikes deeper than the appropriately tangy and sweet barbecue sauce, the core of St. Louis seasoning. But the waitress on my first visit also recommended the RV tenderloin. I waited until another evening to give it a shot—although I should have asked about the name. Hmm...I know what free-range means, so RV must be either slaughtered or "tenderized" (or both) by recreational vehicles.
Beef squished under a couple tons of Winnebago would presumably be supple. This, however, is a tough, stringy beast seeping thin and watery juice and far too weak from its non-vehicular death experience to battle a surprisingly torpid coating of horseradish cream, "Southwesternized" with cilantro. Two quarters of soft banana slump between hunks of meat, apparently to further the Southern Hemisphere appeal...although the side of asparagus en croute—en a very salty croute, mind you—suggests something more along the lines of French cuisine.
If Denny's ran a French restaurant, that is.
Yet the oozing mass of pureed potatoes reeks with the caramelized earthiness of roasted garlic and proves rather compelling—again plating intriguing sides with languid mains, a recurring problem at RJ Mexican unless you stick with the classics. The tamales come wrapped in banana leaves, the masa fine and steaming, the flavors rich, murky and captivating. An accompanying salsa approaches flirtatiously with a flash of lime, smiles sweetly through a bright tomato puree before turning on you suddenly in an outburst of heat. Chiles rellenos are easy on the palate, probably because of the cap of "Mexican melting cheese," which I'm guessing you find next to jumping beans. Burritos drizzled in gentle queso seem warm and comfortable, although (in a review full of "althoughs") the waitress brought a chicken-filled burrito instead of our requested beef version.
Service and atmosphere are decidedly spotty. The burrito arrived while I dealt with the final of three appetizers. My entrée on that particular evening finally came as the others finished their plates. Management found a grating soundtrack of Christmas favorites performed by B-level musicians, which if anything forces you to tune out the "ambience" and focus on table conversation. As we entered on another night, a tray of discards bused from a table and still splattered with the chunky jetsam of someone's dinner, greeted us at the door—next to the wax dessert reproductions. Mm-mmm, think I'll try some of that half-eaten enchilada with my homemade Blue Bell ice cream.
Management at RJ Mexican seems adrift.
All that said, the restaurant's popularity is easy to explain. Tex-Mex and Mexican standards reach a level appropriate for a city that flocks to Mi Cocina. Even their "top-shelf" margaritas file into the inexpertly made sweet, effervescent, barely alcoholic category preferred by local diners—and you can showboat by calling your own brand of tequila which, even if the sweet and sour mix drowns the taste completely, makes you look, well, Dallas.
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Of course, our waitress on one visit translated "Sauza Hornitos," a decent 100 percent agave reposado, as the regular college kegger tequila.
If they reined in the service and had outposts in Highland Park Village and West Village instead of the West End, RJ Mexican would likely replace that other spot in the hearts of this city's prestigious crowd.
But then it would lose that uninformed, bumbling, Palinesque face that has a few of those same folks looking forward to 2012.
1701 N. Market St., 214-744-1420. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$-$$$.