Americans have an obsession with Mexican food.
A cursory glance at fast-food chains, food courts and strip malls reveals that along with life and liberty, we seem to be entitled to the pursuit of inexpensive Mexican eats. Besides pizza, no other cuisine exhibits the kudzulike quality that results in the rampant spread to every hamlet and metropolis in the country of tacos, burritos and other dishes borrowed from Latin culture.
Into the fray comes Plaza del Ray, billing itself as fine Mexican dining. Given that it’s not a hole-in-the-wall tacqueria, this could be a reference to the space, but don’t arrive expecting great atmosphere, because the vibe is more sterile-hotel-conference-room than welcoming dining room. Over three visits, I’ve yet to see anyone at the bar, and the TV on the wall is usually set to a soccer game which distracts the staff in the way that cellphones are known to do.
My taste buds could ignore all that for some actually fine Mexican dining, but Plaza del Ray also has some other problems — particularly the lackluster cooking coming out of the kitchen. Little of it entices diners other than people working nearby to schlep to a difficult-to-access Cox Road strip mall for a meal.
To be honest, other than the tableside preparation of guacamole ($7.99), nothing tastes particularly fresh. Beware the combo platters. The glaringly bright red sauce overtaking a beef enchilada on one such platter ($9.99) tastes like the cheapest canned spaghetti sauce, leaving what tastes like a slick of preservatives on the tongue. Another night, the gloppy red sauce reappears like a bad dream on a bean burrito ($3.75). Scraped clean of the sauce, the burrito tastes about like what you’d pick up in the frozen food case at a grocery store.
It’s a good thing the runny salsa is provided gratis, because it eats like watered-down ketchup — not an appetizing place to scoop a chip. Bean dip under a layer of cheese sauce ($4.99) may not break any ground, but it’s a far nobler use for the basket of chips.
Chicken fajita ($11.99), anyone? Decline the offer unless your doctor has you on a bland diet. And what’s with the gummy texture of the rice? Inattention defeats far too many dishes, causing me to wonder if anyone in the kitchen tasted this stuff before putting it on the menu.
Not everything is a complete disappointment, but nothing wows either. Nachos supremos ($8.99) make a fine first-round draft pick, layering ground beef, lettuce and pico de gallo under a blanket of cheese sauce and sour cream — satisfying, if not especially sassy. At lunch, a shrimp taco salad ($9.99) shows up loaded with seasoned shrimp over the usual suspects, but the flour tortilla bowl is greasy from too much time in the fryer.
Simple seems to be best with the three-ingredient quesadilla ranchera ($9.99) scoring high marks for the combination of nothing more than caramelized onions, steak and cheese. Perhaps someone in the kitchen is from Philly. Fat with tilapia, the mango fish tacos ($12.99) escape the curse of the red sauce and arrive with white cabbage, mango salsa and chipotle cream salsa for a lighter take on Mexican.
Service is as variable as Richmond’s spring has been. Speed seems to be of the essence when backsides are barely in booths and a server drops off chips and salsa, pressing to take our order. Easier said than done, because Plaza del Rey is well-suited to those with a reading bent. The spiral-bound menu is seven pages long, which doesn’t include the separate drink menu atop the tables. But try to get a water refill or your check, and you’re likely to find your server AWOL or so engrossed in the game that repeated attempts fail to catch anyone’s attention.
Your best bet is tequila and guacamole, both invented around the same time and place by the Aztecs in the 16th century. May I suggest settling in with some of the best-priced tequila in town — Espolon is a mere $5.99 a shot — and ordering up tableside guacamole made to your specifications?
My own pursuit of happiness? Guac that’s heavy on the onion with a hint of cilantro and plenty of lemon for brightness with my Espolon. It’s the one combo where Plaza del Rey shines. S
Plaza del Rey
Sundays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
3641 Cox Road