By Prisca Kim
There is an overwhelming amount of Mexican restaurants in Grinnell, which can make it difficult to decide where to dine. I had this problem; unable to make a decision, I went out and took into consideration the food, service, ambience, wait time and presentation of every single Mexican restaurant in Grinnell in order to reach a verdict on where Grinnellians should seek out their grub, Mexican-style. Oh, wait. There are only two restaurants: La Cabaña Grill and Casa Margaritas.
In order to compare the quality of food at both restaurants, I ordered enchiladas, a common Mexican dish that is a rolled tortilla with a filling. At La Cabaña Grill, I ate the enchiladas rancheros, which consisted of five mini enchiladas served with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and cheese. Over at Casa Margaritas, I had the enchiladas verdes, which was a dish with two enchiladas with shredded beef, which came with salsa verde, rice, beans and lettuce.
I have to admit, the enchiladas at La Cabaña were a huge disappointment; all of the ingredients lacked quality. It seemed like I could buy all of the ingredients myself in the sale section at any local supermarket. The ground beef and refried beans tasted like those from a can, the lettuce still smelled like the plastic bag it came in and the cheese was flavorless and cheap. The plating itself was a little bit sloppy with the way that the lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream looked as if they had been tossed on in random places on top of the enchiladas. On top of that, every time I cut off another piece of my enchiladas with my knife, the form fell apart and the tortillas easily fell apart. I believe that the food could have been hotter because the outside tortilla and melted cheeses were moderately hot, but once I cut through the enchiladas, all of my food was lukewarm. In addition, I could taste an excess of oil used to cook my food from the slick moist taste left in my mouth after every bite. The texture of my cheese enchilada made me feel like I was eating a child’s toy block, particularly because the cheese was not hot enough. Even a couple of hours after dining, I still felt the food sitting in my stomach and the oily remainders dwelling in my mouth.
At Casa Margaritas, my enchiladas verdes nearly represented an entirely different food dish. Even though this time I only got two enchiladas, with only one meat filling, the quality of each ingredient was more authentic and overall better. First off, the dish was served hot, and from the moment the plate landed on the table, I could smell the scrumptious aromas of beefy goodness, tangy salsa and smoothly melted cheese. The shredded beef I devoured was perfectly juicy and neither undercooked nor overcooked. I could tell that the beef had some seasoning that created a savory and salty flavor. My favorite part was that the cook was not cheap with the beef, and really packed the meat into my enchilada so that my tortilla was almost being stretched out at certain parts on the surface. The salsa verde that was served on top of the enchiladas soaked in perfectly onto the outside of the tortillas that each bite I took was balanced perfectly with the melted cheese, sufficient salsa and a generous shred of beef. The accompanying rice, lettuce and beans were also superb. I especially enjoyed the rice because it contained a few diced tomato pieces that provided bursts of mildly sweet juice to complement the soft seasoned rice. Sadly, my beans failed to meet the same expectations as the neighboring foods on the plate because they were bland and slightly watery, even when I tried eating them with the rice or with the beef. Although they were topped with cheese, the beans and cheese together still had no flavor. My plate overall was fresh with tantalizing ingredients: even the lettuce provided explosions of flavor with each crunchy bite.
Both restaurants provided complimentary chips and salsa at the start of my meal. At La Cabaña, the chips were mediocre and bland, but the salsa was fresh and flavorful with a variety of spices. For Casa Margaritas, their salsa was watery but the chips were warmly toasted and slightly salted and even tasted good plain without salsa.
At La Cabaña Grill, each item on the menu is fairly cheap. A majority of the foods range from four to seven dollars, but you are getting what you pay for because even though the portions are fairly large, the food is low quality. It might even be better to buy the ingredients at the market and cook the food yourself to save money, but essentially eat the same food.
On the other hand, Casa Margaritas is slightly more expensive, with prices between six and nine dollars per dish. Their dishes are also pretty big, but the taste and level of food here is a lot higher. I feel that the food at Casa Margaritas is worth the price.
The ambience at La Cabaña is festive and cultural; the restaurant booths resemble pueblos, there are paintings of scenery filling the walls and Mariachi music is blasting throughout the restaurant. Casa Margaritas is a lot more serene, with just a few paintings and posters and some more modern Mexican music playing. Both restaurants have really friendly service and fairly quick wait times, but Casa Margaritas is slower than La Cabaña Grill.
Comparing menus and variety of food present, Casa Margaritas has a lot more variety with seafood, chicken platters and fajita combinations. La Cabaña focuses more on simple dishes such as burritos, taquitos and a lot of items à la carte.
Of the two restaurants, I believe that Casa Margaritas is better overall. I value the quality of food in a good restaurant and the freshness of ingredients as well as the level of flavors present in dishes. Of course, the drive might hold some students back (compared to the brief walk to Cabaña), but I think the quality is worth the effort.