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Mr.Taco's Que Pasa!

Not for spice girls

by Johnette Rodriguez

49 Providence St., West Warwick, 828-7573
Open Sun-Thurs, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-midnight
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Back in 1978, David and Kay Blain moved to Warwick from Anaheim, California, and went into shock -- there weren't any good Mexican restaurants in town. Not so much as a hot tamale to shed happy tears over. No delicate masa harina to morir for. A year later they opened Mr. Taco's, a tiny place with just a dozen offerings and seats for just eight. Quickly discovered, they moved to larger quarters in 1980 and expanded into their present building in 1987.

Having gotten into Mexican dishes in California myself, I know the Blains' pain. We hit Rhode Island in the same primitive era, when supermarkets didn't even have tortillas -- Johnnie had to import them from relatives in Texas. Sad is the (wo)man craving a jalapeño in a Yankee-yanqui bell pepper world.

Now calling itself Mr. Taco's Que Pasa!, the place offers more than a dozen "Mexican specialties," in addition to dozens of usual suspects. You can get white fish a la Veracruz; sliced turkey in a rich mole sauce; or arroz Yucatan, a shrimp and fish dish in a wine sauce; all under $8. The same page on the menu lists a half-dozen "American favorites" for those who want nothing more south of the border than chili on corn chips.

Seven soup and chili choices range from corn with cheese to New Mexican red stew, the hottest one, with beef chunks and jalapeños (both $2.50/$3.95). I had the pozole ($1.75/$2.95), which was chock full of chicken as well as the mandated pork, and the chicken broth was fortified with beef stock. The traditional lettuce, onions and cheese were served on the side, along with tomato. Johnnie had the black bean soup ($1.50/$2.50), a puree served with a packet of sour cream and well enjoyed. She's an onion ring fan, so we shared the Mr. Taco variation ($2.95), with a crumb batter. They were nicely greaseless, but the accompanying green sauce was bland to the point of tasteless.

My dining companion's combination plate was a good cross-section of the a la carte items. You can pick from eight entrée items and seven side dishes. With two main dishes, it's $7.50; with three, $8.75. She had a chicken enchilada, which was meaty and dense with Monterey jack; a bean chilaquile, which is sort of a Mexican lasagna with corn tortillas between the layers; and a potato chimichanga, which could have used more bell pepper to bolster the taste. The accompanying "southwestern vegetables" were a nice stir-fry, the zucchini not over-cooked.

I had been looking forward to the barbecue buffet, offered Mondays through Wednesdays from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., and ended up both satisfied and disappointed. The best meat choices were a succulent herb-marinated chicken and the slabs of beef brisket in a flavorful barbecue sauce. The billed Whiskey River chicken "wings of fire" were missing, replaced by a tame baked version. The chili had pinto rather than (shudder) kidney beans, with the ground beef, which was more flavorful than the barbecue beans in the adjoining steam table compartment.

There was also corn bread and a sweet coleslaw, which both rated seconds. For adults, the buffet is only $7.95; for kids under 12, $3.95; under 4, free. On barbecue night, you can also get a rack of St. Louis-style ribs, a beef brisket plate or a chicken plate for $7.95 or $8.95, as well as barbecue beef or chicken sandwiches ($5.99).

Drinks include bottled Mexican beers, of course, plus an array of margaritas. The house wine is Inglenook, and you can get it by the carafe. Desserts include sweet versions of chimichangas and empanadas. The former is a flour tortilla contained spiced apples and cheese, rolled and fried ($1.89; $2.39 with ice cream).

Prices have remained low enough to keep this a family restaurant. The down side is that recipes may have been Americanized too much, to please the Taco Bell crowd. Some dishes, including those where pouring on hot sauce isn't the right call, are underseasoned. And while I realize that some taste buds recoil from cilantro like flies from pitcher plants, I miss it in my pozole. Nevertheless, Mr. Taco's Que Pasa! is a good bargain if your food mood doesn't run to spicy and you crave the occasional burrito.

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