|Rating:||3 out of 5 spoons|
Since this is my first review of a chain restaurant, I should explain my stance on chain restaurants. I’m disturbed by people who only eat at chains. Some people’s automatic reflex upon deciding to eat out is to pile in the car and head to TGIFridays, Chili’s, or Applebee’s, to which I have to say, “What a waste!” I can’t imagine missing out on all of the fantastic Charlotte food in favor of the same chain meals over and over.
That being said, I’m not a food snob. I like food that tastes good and is prepared creatively and passionately. It’s that simple. That means that I’m always a bit annoyed by those people who refuse to step foot in a chain and look down their noses at the concept. They want to find the pretentious, bohemian restaurant in the corner of nowhere and scoff at friends who haven’t eaten there yet. That’s not me.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a restaurant that has a good thing going in multiple locations around the country (though I’ll acknowledge some restaurants start to run on autopilot with their food when they get large and quality control is difficult). In fact, in terms of some types of cuisine, I haven’t found non-chains in Charlotte that do them well. As you can see, I straddle the fence here. My rule of thumb is simply to try everything and go where the taste leads me.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what Mike and I affectionately call “Flats.” Mike and I stumbled on this little place one Sunday and it’s become our regular after-church lunch destination. The great employees there now know us by name! Tijuana Flats is a relatively small chain that sprang out of Florida to open a handful of restaurants in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia and, of course, North Carolina. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t seen it yet, because there are only two Charlotte locations. The restaurant is based on a unique (if sometimes obnoxious) concept: each location has its own heavy dose of personality consisting bumper sticker and autograph adorned, wildly painted walls and their pride and joy, the hot sauce bar. Hot foods are a big deal at Tijuana Flats, and award-winning nuclear hot sauces are on sale for all you hotheads out there.
One aspect of Tijuana Flats that still has me and Mike scratching our heads is the multiple personality disorder it seems to be sporting. In some ways, it’s similar to a fast food restaurant: you grab a menu, glance over it, and order at the counter. Instead of waiting at the counter, however, you find a table and wait for your food to be brought out by a server. This kind of fast food / wait staff mix makes the refill situation is a bit convoluted. There are free refills, but instead of walking up to fill your cup, a server will come by during the meal to fill it for you. Maybe this sounds nice, but what it creates is a situation where you’re not getting full service BUT you still feel compelled to tip the server. I don’t mind tipping at a full service restaurant, but when I’m going for a fast food experience, I’d rather just get my own drink and save the extra cash. Just sayin’.
Now onto the food! It’s not going to transport you into heavenly Mexican ecstasy or anything, but as quick Tex-Mex in Charlotte goes, it’s a winner. If you’ve tried Qdoba, you’ve probably had a burrito that’s mostly rice, a too-small batch of nachos, etc. Tijuana Flats definitely does a better job with their food, though a couple menu items do still miss the mark.
One thing you’ll notice at Tijuana Flats is that the menu options are endless. All entrées come with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, sour cream, and black olives by default, though you can choose to leave off anything you’re not fond of (black olives for me — ick!). You can choose to “make it green” by adding a side salad, “make it wheat” by substituting a wheat tortilla, “power lite” by using low fat sour cream and cheese, “make it wet” by pouring on queso/red chipotle sauce/verde sauce, or “make it a meal” by adding rice and beans. When you consider that you can also choose the meat for your entrée (beef, chicken, steak, or beans) and the size of some entrées, you start to understand the massive potential to customize.
Mike’s favorite menu choice is a Tijuana sized beef chimichanga with all toppings, “wet” with queso. Entrées come with a side of tasty, crisp, salted and peppered tortilla chips (usually not enough for me). I like the chimichanga, but the kitchen can be inconsistent with it. The tortilla is sometimes soggy and greasy, while other times it’s perfectly crisp and golden brown. Mike likes to eat it and then scoop up the chimi leavings with his tortilla chips.
Tijuana Flats Beef Chimichanga wet with Queso
Personally, I vacillate between favoring the quesadillas or nachos depending on the day. If I’m in the mood for a light meal, I go with the quesadilla. The blackened chicken tastes a little too spice-heavy and the chicken and beans is too runny, but the regular chicken quesadilla is just right for me. I order two sides of queso — one to dunk my chips in, and one to dunk my quesadilla! I love it when they get the tortillas really toasty and brown, but that’s another hit or miss thing.
Tijuana Flats Chicken Quesadilla
Nachos are my go-to meal when I’m looking for something more substantial. Initially, I was actually disappointed with them. When I think of nachos, I think of delicious, melty cheese, but these were simply sprinkled with the shredded variety. After realizing that, though, I simply started asking for the nachos “wet” with queso and now they’re quite good: lots of fresh veggies, shredded cheese, chunks of chicken, and that gooey melty cheese I love. Tijuana Flats has great queso, if a little runny — I think it’s saltier than others I’ve tried, which I like.
Tijuana Flats Nachos
Tijuana Flats tacos are nice and fresh-tasting on soft, pliable flour tortillas, but they’re missing something. For a restaurant that prides itself on heat and pep, the Flats has some pretty plain tacos. I added some sweet hot sauce to one of mine for some zing and it was much better, but I probably wouldn’t bother with them again.
Tijuana Flats Tacos
Some final pointers:
1. Steer clear of the tostadas! The refried beans are baked to a bitter crust on the corn tortillas, making the tostadas simply a much less flavorful imitation of the nachos (less food, too).
2. Put queso on everything!
3. I wouldn’t recommend pork on your entrees — it’s pretty bland.
As you can see, Tijuana Flats isn’t perfect, but we love the atmosphere, the hospitality, the CRUSHED ICE IN THE DRINKS (where are all the restaurants with crushed ice around here?!), and a few of the great signature entrées. For your quick Tex-Mex needs, stop into a Flats and let me know what you think.
Have you been to Tijuana Flats? Did you try the HOTTEST HOT SAUCE and live to tell about it? Know any other great Tex-Mex joints? Share your thoughts by clicking on the “Comments” link below.