There aren’t many of them left left – these Mexican chain restaurants that sprouted up in the 1980s and introduced many of us to what is now one of the most popular styles of restaurant cuisines in America.
For me, it was Chi-Chi’s, which will forever have a special place in my heart. Although Mexican food is much more authentic these days, I still miss Chi-Chi’s individually topped nachos.
Chi-Chi’s left the town more than a decade ago; Don Pablo’s is gone, too, leaving Carlos O’Kelly’s as one of the last large Mexican chains still in the Summit City.
In terms of looks, the Coliseum Boulevard store follows the Mexican chain blueprint to a T – faux adobe walls covered with sombreros and random black-and-white Mexican photos and a smattering of pottery placed here and there.
But what I found a bit refreshing was that the menu actually had some offerings that were more 2012 Mexican than 1987 Tex-Mex.
The Chicken Fiesta Salad, for instance, had black beans, sliced avocado, sweet corn, bell pepper and red onions over mixed greens with grilled fajita chicken or crispy tenders over mixed greens with green chile ranch dressing. I chose grilled and it was tender and juicy. The avocado was delicious, fried flour tortilla crisps added crunch and the dressing added a nice burst of pepper flavor. The only negative was that is was covered with shredded white cheese that was not in the menu description.
LoLo’s Chicken Tacos featured pulled chicken joined on flour tortillas with lettuce, fresh cilantro, red onions, cheddar and a drizzle of Don Pablo’s Fiesta Ranch dressing. The chicken was tender and so moist the tacos were drippy, but the tortillas were thick and held up to the juices. The dressing sort of reminded me of more authentic Mexican crema sauce.
The dish also came with tasty black beans and choice of rice. I chose the more modern sounding cilantro-lime rice, but it had no cilantro or citrus flavor. It was so bland it made the ketchup-sweet red standard rice seem good even though it really wasn’t.
The best side at this Mexican restaurant was the Papas O’Kelly – four-cheese mashed potatoes. It may not be a good thing that the mashed potatoes were the best side, but these were hearty with a lot of cheese and a lot of flavor.
And it was the perfect side for my Burrito En Fuego, which was stuffed with stringy tender Mexican-seasoned beef brisket that kind of reminded me of pot roast. The pot roast was joined inside a giant tortilla with bright orange melted cheese, tomatoes, garlic, onions and what the menu called a blend of chiles, from mild to wild but which I just call jalapenos. It was topped with Carlos O’Kelly’s red, spicy Fuego sauce. It was pretty spicy and pretty darn satisfying even without the blend of peppers.
There were other offerings that did incorporate a blend of peppers.
The Queso Fundito appetizer featured standard yellow queso dip – rather bland and useless on its own – and Monterrey Jack cheese combined with poblano chiles, hatch green chiles, red bell peppers and seasoned grilled onions. It had the perfect amount of heat and sweetness. It came with those thick flour tortillas for dipping, but I liked Carlos O’Kelly’s thin, crispy, salty white chips better.
The salsas with those chips were much different during my visits. The first time it was drab, thin and flavorless. The second time it was thick, chunky and vibrant. The second visit came after a menu revamp and I wonder if the salsa was revamped, too.
What looked to be the same mix of peppers and onions in the Fundito made the chicken tortilla soup with its tangy tomato broth, fried tortilla crisps and sour cream on top a pleasant appetizer.
The Fajita Cheese Crisp appetizer was not so pleasant. A fried flour tortilla was topped with grilled chicken, Monterrey Jack and garlic butter, then baked and finished with diced tomatoes and chives.
The big tortilla was not cut and was awkward to divide and share. It was buttery and cheesy, but the only part of that tortilla that was crisp was the edge. The rest was soggy from the butter and just gross.
The Fiesta Sampler was not gross, but was not worth getting again. It was one of those classic Tex-Mex entrées from 1987 with three different sauces and fillings in the forms of a chimichanga and two enchiladas with a beef and bean tostada to boot.
The pulled chicken enchilada was passable with that drippy chicken and a flavorful poblano cream sauce. The fried tortilla part of the tostada was at least crisp and it had nicely seasoned ground beef, but it was not much better than any fast food version.
The brisket chimi was not crisp and its red sauce inside was no better than a canned one from a grocery. The ground beef was fine and there was a ton of bright yellow cheese inside, but it was ruined when blanketed in the flavorless yellow queso sauce.
The thing that bothered me most about this Mexican chain was the service. One would think a restaurant under a corporate umbrella would run a tighter ship.
The servers were not attentive. Drink refill requests were ignored and the wait to have orders taken and to receive my check was awful.
As I left, I think I discovered why. Both times, a few of Carlos O’Kelly’s employees – including both of my servers – stood in front of an empty neighboring space in the strip mall smoking and chatting.
Not only did it explain why my servers were MIA, but it was also crass. A good manager would make those employees take fewer breaks and, more importantly, take the breaks out of the customers’ sight.
Restaurant: Carlos O’Kelly’s
Address: 549 Coliseum Blvd. E.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Queso Fundito ($6.99), Fajita Cheese Crisp ($6.99), Fiesta sampler ($12.99), Lolo’s Chicken Tacos ($8.99), Burrito En Fuego ($10.99), Chicken Fiesta Salad ($9.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).