I always visit a restaurant more than once when reviewing it. Bad days happen from time to time, especially in these times when finding workers is hard. And more than one visit means more than one chance to find a great dish.
Lalos Restaurante Mexicano on Wallen Road near Lima Road needed two visits for sure. The contrast between my visits were possibly the most stark I have ever experienced. As a result, I don't really know how to feel about the place. And given all of the Mexican options in the Summit City, the chance of me returning is diminished.
What hasn't diminished are the crowds at Lalos, which opened in the midst of the pandemic. And those crowds are not likely to subside until another family-friendly Mexican place opens nearby because Lalos surprisingly has no competition there.
Given it was so busy and given we are still in a pandemic, I was surprised at how close the tables were situated. I was also forced to stand outside as I waited on a table because there was very little room at the entrance much less seats there for parties to distance themselves.
Once I was seated during my first visit, I was startled when the smoke alarms were triggered by a server's overzealous dousing of a fajita platter. We got to hear it for a good 10 minutes before it went silent.
The chips and salsa arrived swiftly, but that pureed salsa was quite bland, so I quickly ordered an appetizer. Several varieties of nachos were offered and I tried two versions, which were not only far apart in terms of quality, they were also much different in construction.
I had the Border Nachos during my lunch visit and they were simply masterpieces. Not only were they meticulously, individually topped with ground beef and cheese with a nest of lettuce, tomato, sour cream, guacamole and jalapeño slivers in the center of the plate, these nachos were also made with a double-chip base so they were sturdier, making it easy to load each one with all the fixings without having them fall off on my plate or, for that matter, my shirt. Calling them chips is actually misleading because these were perfectly flat tortilla crisps that were basically tostada chips that had been cut into wedges. Their flatness also helped keep the toppings stable.
Given my love of the Border Nachos, when I went back on a busy weekend night, I could not wait to try the Seafood Nachos. But, alas, they arrived in a giant pile on the plate with toppings scattered all over the place. Apparently, the Border Nachos are the only ones individually topped.
That was not the issue with this appetizer, however. The diced shrimp and crab pieces were mushy and I thought I tasted a hint of lime here and there which made me wonder if marinated ceviche seafood was used. There also was no queso sauce, just shredded cheese, tomatoes, onions and cilantro – and no sour cream or guacamole. The cilantro was the most prominent of those and its flavor lingered after each bite.
Queso sauce, or lack thereof, was the issue with the Tijuana Quesadilla that I had that night as well. The menu description said it was “glazed with cheese sauce” but there was barely enough cheese to cover half of mine, which is not exactly what “glazed” means. And that queso was flavorless to boot.
The inside was even worse. I love al pastor marinated pork and was glad it was an option until I received a quesadilla filled with super-greasy pork bits that had a distinct burnt flavor instead of the smoky charred flavor I hoped it would have.
The Sopes Mexicano, which I chose one with chicken and one with steak, also left me unimpressed. The meat was fine as were all of the other toppings I received – lettuce, tomatoes and crema but no queso fresco which is the highlight of these traditional treats. The discs of fried masa holding it all were also soft instead of slightly crisp on the outside, so they became very soggy under the weight of the toppings. They, too, lacked flavor.
During my good visit at lunchtime, I steered clear of the taqueria-style fare and ordered what I considered to be safer Tex-Mex options. My choices were also narrowed by the limited lunch menu, which may explain why things were more consistent as the kitchen staff had fewer things to tackle.
I was also surprised that my midweek afternoon margarita – which was on special for $1.99 – blew away the bland, watery one I was served on a busy weekend night. Again, though, I chalked that up to the slower pace the staff could work at given the smaller crowd.
Pablo's Burrito featured two ground beef and bean-stuffed enchiladas: one with cheese sauce and one with red sauce. I should have gotten both with the red sauce because the queso was again bland, but that red sauce was bright and flavorful. The ground beef inside was decent so it was a solid lunch.
The Pollo Lalos was quite simple with grilled chicken strips coated in ranchero sauce and queso served with rice and beans. The chicken was tender and well seasoned, and the reddish-orange ranchero sauce was delicious. The queso was hard to detect, which came as no surprise since I already knew it lacked flavor.
Both of the desserts I sampled were ordered at lunch because I was simply ready to get out of the place during my disappointing dinner experience. And both are worth having again, especially the fried ice cream which was perfectly executed to be crispy on the outside, and soft and creamy inside. It was also served in a yummy edible cinnamon and sugar-dusted bowl.
It was far better than the Tres Leches cake, which I was more excited to try because my server boasted that it was prepared in-house. It was tasty and I had no complaints, but it was not as impressive as the ice cream.
The service at Lalos was OK for the most part with just a bit more personal attention at lunch. There was not much to say about the atmosphere other than the spacing concerns as it had the typical brightly colored, oversized chairs and the like, but nothing else really notable as it was simply jam-packed with tables with no room for any unique design features.
Restaurant: Lalos Restaurante Mexicano
Address: 1724 W. Wallen Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Border Nachos ($10.59), Seafood Nachos ($12.09), Tijuana Quesadilla ($11.69), Sopes Mexicano ($11.09), Pablo's Burrito ($9.49), Pollo Lalos ($11.99), Tres Leches ($4.59), Fried Ice Cream ($4.69)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★ (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ½ (1 maximum), service: ½ (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five