Staying in Middleton, WI one evening, I had my stomach set to eat at a small Italian restaurant in the rapidly evolving downtown area of the town. I pulled up in front of the place and it was closed. It was well before the 9 p.m. closing time, but the lights were off and no one was in the place. I wondered if it had gone out of business, but it didn't appear to be the case. They were just closed that evening. I headed out west of the beltway highway knowing that there are a number of restaurant to choose from in that area. I drove by a shopping complex and looked over and saw a place called Abuelo's. (see map) Since "Abuelo" is "Grandfather" in Spanish, I rightly figured it had to be a Mexican restaurant. Hmmm.... Mexican. OK, it's not Italian, but Mexican would do that evening.
The Abuelo's in Middleton (pictured right) is part of a chain of nearly 50 upscale Mexican restaurants in 15 states stretching from Virginia across the South and Midwest to Arizona. The origins of Abuelo's is sort of interesting, considering that a Chinese native was the person who helped come up with the concept of providing upscale Mexican food.
James Young moved from his native Taiwan in the mid-70's to study electrical engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He'd never tried Mexican food before he made it to Lubbock, so it's rather curious how he ended up heading a chain of upscale Mexican restaurants. .
In order to make ends meet while Young was going to college, Young worked at a McDonald's, then worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant. His wife, Margaret, and he eventually opened their own small Chinese restaurant in a building that used to house a taco shop near the Texas Tech campus. The venture proved so successful that Young gave up any aspirations to become an electrical engineer and instead concentrated upon being a restaurant owner. His restaurant, Chinese Kitchen, had grown to 16 locations before Young partnered with Chuck Anderson and Dirk Rambo to develop the Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy concept. They opened the first Abuelo's in Lubbock in 1989. Today, Young is the CEO of Food Concepts International, the parent company of Abuelo's.
As Abuelo's has grown, so has their reputation for good food at a good value. Consumer Reports has twice named Abuelo's as the best concept Mexican food restaurant in the nation. They've also been cited for their efforts to preserve traditional Mexican artwork, much of which adorns their restaurants across the country.
I pulled into Abuelo's just after 8 p.m. on a Monday night. Monday nights are usually not that busy for most restaurants (that's probably why the Italian place was closed) and it was no exception at the Abuelo's in Middleton. I had my choice of a table in the ornate dining area, or to sit at the bar. They had a couple flat screen televisions above the bar with basketball on them, so I sat there. There was one other guy at the bar, but he was getting his food to go.
The bartender told me they had a special on margaritas that evening and I quickly signed up for one of those. He asked if I needed a menu and I took one from him. The margarita was good and sweet and was packed with an eye-opening amount of tequila. He later brought out a basket of homemade chips and two bowls of salsa - one large and one small. The small bowl was a chipotle-based salsa and the larger one was their regular salsa with a spicy bite. The chipotle salsa had a nice smoky bite to it and was rather enjoyable. I would have rather had a larger bowl of the chipotle salsa.
The menu featured your typical Mexican food fare - enchiladas, burritos, fajitas and tacos, but it was far from the "American-ized Mexican" food that most Mexican food chains seem to have. Abuelo's had some interesting house specialties including stuffed chicken medallions (chicken breasts stuffed with chorizo, poblano peppers and cheese, then fried), pescado Guerrero (wood-grilled mahi-mahi with shrimp, scallops, mushrooms, roasted peppers, spinach and sliced avocado in a white wine sauce), and enchiladas de Cozumel (three crepe enchiladas stuffed with grilled shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and fresh guacamole). No, this was not your typical American-Mexican restaurant by any means.
They had an extensive combination menu at Abuelo's including Mi Abuelo's manjar (three enchiladas filled with beef, cheese and chile con carne and topped with two eggs), the Nogales (two large enchiladas, one filled with shredded beef and ranchera sauce, the other filled with grilled chicken and a sour cream sauce), and a chile relleno combination (one with blended cheese stuffed inside and the other stuffed with shredded beef). I looked up and down the menu trying to figure out what I was going to get for dinner and I finall decided upon the make your own enchilada combination. I got one with ground beef and chile con carne sauce, another with pulled pork with a green chile sauce, and a shredded beef with ranchera sauce. Papas con chiles - mashed potatoes with red and green chiles, a blend of four different cheeses, sour cream, garlic and jalapenos - came with the enchiladas along with a side of refried beans.
I had pushed away the chips and salsa long before the meal came out or I would have gorged myself on them and ruined my appetite. And I'm glad I did - when the bartender brought out my dinner I was amazed at the large portion of food on my plate. The three enchiladas took up half the large plate and the Papas con chiles and the refried beans took up the other half.
The first enchilada I tried was the shredded beef with the smoky ranchera sauce. While it was good, the sauce sort of overpowered the overall taste of the enchilada.
I next tried the pulled pork with the green chile sauce. The pork was tasty and tender and the green chile sauce was just excellent. It was much better than the shredded beef enchilada with the ranchera sauce.
Finally, the ground beef taco with the chile con carne sauce was good, but not as good as the pulled pork. But I would rank it number two of the three I had that evening.
But I have to tell you, it's rare that the highlight of the meal is a side dish, but the papas con chile was just out of sight. As I was eating bite after bite of the potatoes, I thought to myself that it had to be easy to make. My wife makes a great garlic/cream cheese mashed potato recipe that is outstanding. I usually don't like to eat potatoes on their own, they're usually too bland. But Abuelo's zipped up their mashed potatoes with mild chiles, a blend of Mexican cheeses, sour cream and a hint of garlic with a little bite from chopped jalapenos. Finding the right combination would be the key.
The surprising thing about the whole meal is that the combination was just $11.95. With a margarita special for $3.00 and a Dos Equis Amber beer at $3.75, my meal was under $19 bucks before tax and tip. It was an outrageous value for pretty good Mexican food. And just trying the papas con chile was worth the price of admission for me.
Sometimes, the surprise you get from finding a good restaurant out of the blue makes it all worth while to be on the road. Abuelo's was one of those surprising finds and I wasn't disappointed in the least. If I make it back - and I probably will if I find another Abuelo's while I'm on the road - I'll modify my food order to not include anything with the ranchera sauce (good, but too overpowering) and go more with the green chile sauce. Oh, and the papas con chile. I can't forget that delectable dish! Yum!