I try to avoid philosophical problems at the dinner table. Unresolved thinking can lead to indigestion.
Yet, I found myself unable to avoid pondering a difficult question at the bar at Dos Madres Cantina in Decatur the other night. If a restaurant serves a salsa so bland and watery that it could’ve come from a budget can at the grocery store, does it matter if they make it in the kitchen? Is it better to know that the chef actually intended to make something that flavorless? Or would it be a relief to know that the kitchen simply isn’t trying?
I couldn’t decide. I just kept shoveling it in my mouth, trying to find a flavor that wasn’t there.
I often thought about flavor during my meals at Dos Madres, the way one remembers a long lost friend. I looked for her in the tacos, in the guac, in the queso, in the tostadas. I could not find her. She became a faint memory, a forgotten idea, my old love, food with flavor.
You have probably been to a restaurant like Dos Madres Cantina before. It is not Tex-Mex, nor Baja-style, nor Southwestern, nor a taqueria, though the menu does borrow from the wide culinary traditions that fall under the umbrella of “Mexican.” This is not necessarily a problem; plenty of great restaurants ignore purist conventions. Unfortunately, chef Jorge Yzaguirre borrows those dishes and produces a miserably bland yet structurally accurate imitation of them.
In that way, Dos Madres has as much in common with Chili’s as it does with any “Mexican” restaurant.
The tortilla chips here are absolutely fine. They’re crisp and thin and salty enough. The trouble starts with trying to find something to put them in.
The guacamole is whipped into an almost paste-like smoothness, with none of the depth promised by serrano chiles and onion. The queso promises roasted poblanos. I was served a cup of salty melted cheese. I wasn’t sure if the red or green salsa was worse. Both are watery and indistinct, but the verde has an added displeasure of a metallic aftertaste. The shrimp ceviche has no zing of lime, no kick of peppery heat. It is just a champagne coupe filled with chunks of bland shrimp.
The rest of the menu follows this lead. There are fajitas, tacos and a few higher-priced entrees for suckers. I spent almost 20 bucks for a plate of overstuffed tostadas here, just in case flavor was being served on a kind of pay-for-play basis. They were generously portioned and just as bland as everything else I tried.
The décor, like the menu, has that vaguely Mexican touch. There are framed pictures of Frida Kahlo and Day of the Dead skeletons, a couple of blankets thrown over the windows, and a couple of televisions.
The drinks are fine. The margarita is classic and simple, though a little short, and the beer list includes a few good locals in with the typical domestics and imports. The bartender I had on both of my visits was friendly and sharp, even in the busy rush of a Friday night. None of that was enough to distract me from the lousy tacos.
The taco is a remarkably simple but versatile culinary invention. It requires only two elements, a tender but sturdy tortilla and something substantial but flavorful piled on that tortilla. Within the two, there is nearly limitless pleasure and possibility.
Dos Madres almost achieves one of those elements. The corn tortillas are both tender and sturdy enough to support a generous portion, though they’re apparently heated on a griddle that leaves them a tad too greasy. That would be a minor complaint if the tacos contained anything vaguely resembling a flavor to balance that grease. They do not.
The chicken tinga tacos, which purport to be served with a “smoky tomato sauce,” are served with avocado, cilantro and a sprinkling of cojita cheese. I can confirm the chicken in these tacos is reddish, suggesting the presence of tomatoes, though there was no smoky anything, no savory-sweetness of tomato. The carnitas tacos are studded with chunks of pineapple, but not enough to balance the extra-greasy pork. Fish tacos are battered and crunchy enough, but the slaw served atop doesn’t have enough vinegar to brighten it up. All of these are served with deeply forgettable portions of black beans and rice.
Life is too short for tacos like this. There is a world of flavor out there, of smoky dried chiles and bright citrus and sweet fruit and spicy fresh peppers belonging to the great, varied traditions of Mexican cooking. I hope Dos Madres considers visiting that world.