I'd had a long day in the office trying to close some deals. After a couple last minute deals fell through very late in the day, I decided I'd had enough. I needed some food and I needed a drink. Cindy had suggested going across the river for Mexican food. I immediately got into the mood for El Mariachi, probably my favorite of all the Mexican restaurants in the Quad Cities. A couple of their margaritas and my mindset would be back to normal.
As we drove across the bridge to go to El Mariachi, I turned to head in that direction. Cindy said, "Where are you going? I wanted to go to the other place."
"What other place," I asked.
"That place I read about in the paper," she replied. Now, I don't remember us having a conversation about going to this other place. In fact, she didn't even remember the name of it. "I know where it is, just go this way," she said.
She guided me to place along the border of Moline and Rock Island (see map) and said, "This is it!" I immediately recognized the place as a small Mexican restaurant that we ate at a number of years ago.
I said, "We've eaten here before."
She said, "Well, not since it's been called Old Mexico." I just shrugged my shoulders and parked the car. I just needed a margarita.
Old Mexico has been in business for about 10 years now, but we'd been to the location when it was known as Lolita's. And we'd never been back for some reason. I really don't remember the visit other than it was in a building along the westbound one-way of 6th Ave. just inside Rock Island. The Barajas family owns and operates Old Mexico, just as they owned Lolita's for a number of years before.
Lolita Barajas and her husband, Juanito, met in Mexico City in 1947 and were married soon thereafter. Juanito - who was actually born in Texas - came back to the United States in 1958, ending up as a waiter at the old LeClaire Hotel in downtown Moline. In 1961, Lolita brought the rest of the family to the U.S. to meet up with Juanito. Her first job was a cook at the original Adolph's Taco House in Moline. In 1965, the Barajas family opened their first restaurant - Lolita's - on 5th Street in Moline. They moved Lolita's to the current location of Old Mexico in 1993.
Over the years, the Barajas family has owned and operated a total of 10 different restaurants along with a Mexican grocery store. George Barajas runs the Old Mexico location in Rock Island, while his sister, Delores, runs Lolita's Taco House in nearby Silvis. However, even in their early 80's, Lolita and Juanito Barajas still show up to work at Old Mexico six days a week (they're closed on Sundays). Lolita continues to cook much of the food at the restaurant and Juanito makes a lot of the sauces used daily.
The interior of Old Mexico is well lit with an ornate tin ceiling overhead. A number of booths are along the side walls with tables in the middle. A sparse crowed was in Old Mexico that evening, including a rather loud table of middle-aged to older ladies - one of whom had a piercing loud laugh. More than once she made me jump with her quick and obnoxious high-pitched laugh. When they got up to leave, we were certainly happy.
However, one thing that I noticed on the tables in front of the patrons - no sign of beer or margaritas. Sure enough, when the waitress brought around menus the only drinks listed were tea and soft drinks. I just let out a heavy sigh and Cindy said, "Oh, boy. I screwed up on this one." Seriously, I contemplated getting up and walking out because I wanted a margarita - just one - in a bad way. But I decided to stick it out. Cindy wanted to try this place and I was tired and hungry. "You can have a margarita at home," she said. But we had nothing at home to make a margarita with. Oh well... I had a large glass of water instead.
The menu at Old Mexico is filled with a number of traditional Mexican foods - enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tamales, etc. When I try a new restaurant, I want to try a combination plate. They had about four or five combo plates on the menu. The one that jumped out at me was the large combination - a taco, tostada, enchilada and a tamale. Actually, I was looking rather hard at getting the pork tamales before I saw the combination plates on the menu.
Cindy found some chicken enchiladas on the menu that she wanted to try. The chicken enchilada verde sounded very good to her. We were ready to order, but there was only one young lady working the floor that evening. Even though they weren't very busy, she was having to be the hostess, wait tables, answer the phone, be the cashier and help clean up. We sat there patiently - well, no - not so patiently on my part to order food. The lack of a margarita after a long day was still sticking in my craw.
The young girl finally came over and said, "You guys, I'm so sorry. Everything seems to get hectic all at once. What can I get you?"
We ordered up and fully expected food to show up in about 20 minutes, because that about the time it took a family of four seated near us to get their food after they'd ordered shortly after we walked in. But in less than 10 minutes she came out carrying a tray with our food. It was a nice presentation. The enchilada wasn't large, similar to the taco. The tostada was covered in lettuce and cheese hiding the refried beans on the tortilla. The tamale was sandwiched between a mound of Mexican rice and a large helping of refried beans.
Cindy's chicken enchilada verde consisted of three enchiladas topped with a green chile sauce and sour cream. Lettuce and tomatoes were off to the side and an ample amount of rice and refried beans accompanied the enchiladas.
I tried the taco first. The beef in the taco was rather salty. Actually, pretty salty. I don't salt much of anything so it especially stood out when I ate it. It was all right, but I wasn't overly impressed by it. The enchilada had beef and pieces of potato inside. The beef was also salty and the enchilada sauce was rather bland. I zipped the enchilada up with some of the homemade and above average salsa Old Mexico provides with chips. It made it better.
The tostada was, well, a tostada. It's pretty difficult to make variations of one when you're using the basics of refried beans, lettuce and Mexican cheese. But when I got to the tamale, things went down hill rapidly.
I took a bite of the tamale and the taste was, well, funny. It was unlike any tamale that I'd had anywhere. I wasn't certain that I liked the taste of their variation of the starchy, corn dough of the tamale. And the pork - I took a bite with the pork inside and there was something wrong with the meat. I don't know if it was overcooked, but I'm guessing it was. It was tough to chew and I actually had to pull a small piece of hard, unchewable meat out of my mouth and place it on the plate.
I went back to eating my tostada for a moment before I went back to trying the tamale. I took another bite of the tamale and immediately spit it out. It was horrid in taste. I had never had a tamale that tasted as bad as this. There was something wrong with the pork. Over cooked, probably. Whatever it was, it tasted bad. I was finished with my meal at that point.
Cindy kept trying to get me to try some of her chicken enchilada verde, but I just don't like chicken in Mexican food, unless it's grilled for fajitas or tacos - something like that. She said, "This is very good. I'm sorry that yours wasn't very good."
As we left, Cindy knew I wasn't happy with my meal. She said, "Aah! We gave that a try," fully knowing that I wouldn't want to go back anytime soon.
I really tried to like the food at Old Mexico. I just love little family places like this, but the taco and enchilada were just OK, the tostada was nothing special and the tamale, well, the tamale was inedible. I did like the sauce and the chips, but the lack of having margaritas, at least that evening, was a minus in my book. I'd much rather patronize the smaller, family-owned places like Old Mexico, but - to me - there are much better Mexican restaurants in the Quad Cites that are similar to this place. I really wanted the food to be good. And the Barajas family have been in business for nearly 47 years now so a lot of people must really like their food. It just didn't hit me like I'm sure it does others. (Photo at left courtesy Quad City Times)