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Montezuma has mild food, good value

April 01, 2007|By SAVORY SAM

The atmosphere is colorful and lively. The service is attentive and friendly. Value for the dollar is good. The place is popular.

So why am I disappointed in Montezuma Mexican Restaurant?

I'm biased.

The 4-year-old family restaurant serving south-of-the-border food on Wayne Avenue just west of Interstate 81 is a good place to go if you have a hankering for Mexican food. For all the reasons listed above, you'll go away happy.

The atmosphere is upbeat. Montezuma's plastered walls are decorated with sombreros, blankets, paintings and figurines from south of the border. Booths line the walls, and tables and chairs pack the space between - all crafted in heavy wood reminiscent of Mexico. Mexican pop and mariachi play on the sound system. Diners might hear bursts of inspired singing from the kitchen staff.

The night we visited, a small army of Mexican wait staff stood ready to serve customers. Our waiter's English was OK, and he was a personable guy. Our food arrived quickly, and portions were generous but not gigantic.

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I think my biases lead me to be stiff-necked. For starters, the Savory Sams have developed a taste for spicy heat. Montezuma's, to our surprise, tones down the spice quotient of nearly everything. One excellent exception was the tomatillo sauce we special-ordered with our chips. The homemade tomatillo sauce is packed with flavor, has decently hot spice and is one of the triumphs of the kitchen.

Another bias: Mystery mounds of food. This may be common to some Mexican food, but if I can't tell what and where things are on my plate, something's wrong. I was halfway through my meal when I discovered I had beans and rice on my plate, buried under a mound of shredded lettuce.

And the sameness of presentation bothered me. I don't like Generic Mexican Dish Syndrome - soft mounds of food with undistinguished flavor and texture. The average plate brought to our table had protein rolled in flatbread surrounded by shredded lettuce, refried beans and rice. The kitchen staff feels no need to distinguish one dish from another with garnishes or culinary art - some way to add visual appeal and character without compromising on authenticity.

Or maybe I just need to get off my high horse. Overall, the Savory Sams had a good time at Montezuma and we'd eat there again.

When we were seated, our waiter brought fresh, hot chips and salsa. The chips were crispy and plentiful. The salsa, served in a cute, little carafe, was smooth and calm - bits of onion and shredded pepper supplied more of a gentle buzz than a whalloping burn.

We asked for something with more heat and received a small bowl of that incredible tomatillo sauce. This we passed around for the remainder of the meal. Yum! We bought a cup to take home.

The extensive menu had something for practically everyone, including vegetarians and children. The Savory vegetarians ordered a mushroom quesadilla, a vegetable chalupa and a fajita. The omnivore chose the Guadalajara Special, featuring a tamale and an enchilada. The carnivore gleefully ordered the carne asada, a traditional northern Mexican dish of grilled flank steak.

We wanted beer to accompany what we expected would be spicy food, but learned that Montezuma does not sell alcohol. Our waiter thoughtfully said we could buy and bring in a six-pack, so we dispatched an emissary to fetch drinks. In addition, we ordered two virgin drinks - a pia colada and a strawberry daiquiri.

(A note to diners unfamiliar with Pennsylvania's liquor laws: Liquor stores sell wine and liquor, but not beer. Carryout beer is available from bars.)

The kitchen is quick. The food arrived on the table before the alcohol.

Montezuma's food earned mixed reviews. A big favorite was the veggie fajita. A plate of carrots, onions, tomatoes and green peppers were carried sizzling and steaming to the table. Great presentation! The veggies were doused in a light but flavorful sauce and came with sour cream, lettuce and pico de gallo on the side. The dish had lots of flavors and a variety of textures. It was a hit with all the vegetarians.

The carne asada got thumbs up from the Savory Sam carnivore. The steak was blackened, which added carbon-y goodness. The accompanying lime-and-jalapeo sauce added depth and flavor.

The Guadalajara Special was so-so. The tamale was flavorful, but had too little shredded beef hiding in too much cornmeal wrapping. The remainder of the dish suffered from Generic Mexican Dish Syndrome.

The other vegetarian offerings were pronounced boring. The mushroom quesadilla and chapula had little flavor or texture. The problem with both might stem from traditional-thinking chefs offering veggie versions of Mexican classics. If vegetables are overcooked and spicing is understated, the result can be a monotonous mush.

The pia colada and daiquiri were run of the mill - sweet and commercial-tasting, but I preferred water.

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