We’re certainly no snob when it comes to Mexican food. We like our cheese dip to involve nothing but a block of Velveeta, a can of Rotel and a microwave. Our favorite place for fajitas is a chain Tex-Mex restaurant called Rio Bravo that, unfortunately, doesn’t have a location within several hundred miles of Little Rock. We can even stomach the occasional Taco Bell bean burrito with a smile on our face.
We don’t hold lack of authenticity against a place. If it tastes good, we don’t really care if it’s whipped up by a bunch of gringos who wouldn’t know a sarape from a huarache.
So we started out OK with the idea of Moe’s Southwest Grill, a chain that recently opened its first Arkansas outpost at North Hills and McCain boulevards in North Little Rock. It’s a cheerful-looking place from the outside, with bright yellow signage and a few tables out front for al-fresco days. When you walk in the door, the guys behind the counter all yell out, “Welcome to Moe’s!” — and, oddly, it’s kind of cool. Like you’re Norm walking into Cheers or something.
And that may be what they’re going for, because a glance at Moe’s menu leaves no doubt whoever’s the brains behind the operation is a fan of pop-culture references. There’s the Art Vandalay burrito, the Ugly Naked Guy taco, the Close Talker salad and the Mini-Me kid-size quesadilla, among other choices. You can even order a Cup of Fat on the side.
Unfortunately, that little trip down Rerun Lane was the highlight of our recent meal.
Moe’s is essentially the Subway of fast-food Mexican cuisine, and even boasts of not using lard in the cooking. You order at one end of the line and follow your meal-in-progress down to the other end, watching as it’s assembled from the relatively limited number of ingredients waiting patiently in stainless steel bins (including the meat, which makes us wonder why Moe’s calls itself a “grill”).
What that means is, everything is just like everything else, except for the wrapping. The fajitas use the same chunks of beef as the burritos and the quesadillas. They don’t come with any grilled vegetables — you can have raw onions, but they’re 79 cents extra. Nevertheless, our group of five diners tried to spread our choices around the menu, with a bowl of queso ($4.99) and a couple of frozen margaritas rounding out the table.
We chose the John Coctostan ($5.29), a quesadilla with steak, beans and cheese. Moe’s promotional material touts the freshness of its ingredients, promising that whatever you eat for lunch was prepared that morning, etc. So we’re a little at a loss to explain why the quesadilla tasted distinctly of Ziploc bag. You know, that tinge of plastic that used to adhere itself to your ham sandwiches back in elementary school. The beef was chewy and on the tough side, although we could have forgiven it that, given the realities of fast-food eating. We gave it three bites, then stuck with the queso after that.
None of the other four members of our group noticed a Ziploc whang in their choices, though, or even the aforementioned quesadillas, but most had criticisms of their own.
One companion ordered the Close Talker salad ($6.29), essentially a taco salad with choice of steak, chicken or tofu. She pronounced it “passable,” although the beef was the lowlight.
Another companion ordered the Homewrecker burrito ($6.29) with chicken (rice, beans, cheese, salsa, guacamole, sour cream and lettuce). It was large, but cold within a few minutes. The salsa was distinctly unspicy, she said, and the burrito altogether unmemorable. Yet another Homewrecker diner, this one going with beef, found his filling and enjoyable. He also thought the salsas lacked any zing, but did compliment the “Rock ’n’ Roll” hot sauce. Salsas and sauces are available from a separate area beyond the food line.
A fourth member of our group chose the Triple Lindy burrito with chicken ($5.79), identical to the Homewrecker except missing the sour cream and lettuce.
He liked his burrito more than any of the rest of our group liked our choices, although he said it went a little heavy on the veggies.
All of us seemed to like the queso best. It’s of the white cheese variety, floury, not especially flavorful but not objectionable either. On the whole, though, with Moe’s location right next to McAlister’s Deli — which serves a cheese dip virtually identical to the Velveeta-and-Rotel variety — we’d be hard pressed to choose Moe’s again if we’re in the area and jonesing for queso.
Moe’s does have a few things going for it, though. The decor is interesting — stylized painted portraits of dead musicians, with the sound system pumping out music by said dead musicians — the locale is convenient, the servers are friendly, and the food made ready quickly without it feeling entirely like a fast-food joint. The prices are a couple bucks cheaper than at full-service Mexican restaurants. And while the frozen margaritas come out of those industrial-sized tanks that dispense Icees in convenience stores, you can actually taste the tequila, though the strawberry-flavored version also had a sugary, cotton-candy taste. We’d suggest going with the traditional lime one instead.
Moe's Southwest Grill
4834 North Hills Boulevard
North Little Rock
Stick with the cheese dip and frozen margaritas.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun. through Thur. 11-10 Fri. and Sat.
Inexpensive. Credit cards. Beer and margaritas.