In a town known for its outstanding Mexican food—from high-end dining rooms to tiny taquerias—you'd better be ready to step up to the plate if you open a Mexican restaurant. The food needs to be great.
Sadly, that's not happening at Big Juan's, a relatively new fast-food joint. (This review covers only the original Big Juan's, on Speedway Boulevard, because the location on First Avenue has not been open at least three months, which is a Weekly requirement for locally owned restaurants.)
Let's start with the pluses: The employees were friendly and totally professional. They gave us coupons and told us about the daily specials. They helped carry the food to the table. They cleared the tables in a timely manner. Even when there was a rush of people, they kept things flowing smoothly. Big Juan's has service down pat.
Another plus: The space is attractive, with purple-leatherette booths lining three windowed walls. Rustic wooden chairs with the same covering as the booths (in various colors) dress up the standard fast-food tables. The interesting artwork—a blend of brightly colored prints and advertising posters—has a decidedly Mexican feel. A salsa bar (with four kinds of salsa, lemons, cukes and pickled vegetables) sits in one corner. The menu is written on easy-to-read boards. And a bucket of iced Mexican sodas ($2) at the counter offers a fun break from the all-you-can-drink fountain choices ($1.75 and $2). The whole space is bright and cheerful.
Obviously, there's been some thought put into those parts of the restaurant. I wish I could say the same for the food.
We sampled dishes all over the menu, but we were disappointed, because every dish, aside from the dessert choices, seemed to be missing something. The portions are humongous, but the only leftover we took home was one flour tortilla.
We had two street tacos, shrimp and beef ($3); the shredded beef taquitos ($3); and a chile relleno ($3). We sampled two burros: the Big Juan ($6), and a ham, cheese and egg breakfast burro ($5). We also ordered a combo plate with one bean tostada and one cheese enchilada ($8). We tried the posole ($5), which is only available on Saturday and Sunday. We did get better prices on drinks ($1), because they come that way when you order a combo. Finally, the counter employee used coupons for us so we got a dollar off the combo and 50 cents off the burro, which was a nice touch.
A Big Juan burro includes carne asada, yellow cheese, potatoes and pico de gallo. Sadly, the beef was missing the tang of marinade and the requisite char. It didn't fare much better in the street taco (in two soft corn tortillas, with cabbage). The shrimp street taco was filled with lots of grilled shrimp in a pleasantly creamy sauce. The filling was good, but the tortillas should've been warmed. They were stiff and dry.
Refried beans are a measure of a good Mexican restaurant, and good refries need to be creamy, moist and maybe just a little "lardy." These were none of that, and the beans could have used some salt. The tostada was pretty much flavorless, because the beans were so bland. The rice on the combo fared no better.
We took advantage of the weekend posole, but were again disappointed. The broth was watery, and the pork—although there was plenty of it—was bland.
I love a good chile relleno, but here, the white cheese was greasy and ruined the lightness of the batter. The same thing happened with the enchilada in the combo. The sauce was a puddle of grease thanks to the cheese separating—and when this happens, it's often a sign of inexpensive cheese.
Taquitos are supposed to be crispy, and these were not. The shredded beef inside was OK, but without the outside crunch, the taquitos were a disappointment. Even the guacamole (which needed salt and lemon) and sour cream couldn't save them.
And the breakfast burro? It might work on the way home after a night of bar-hopping, but the eggs needed salt; the ham was bland; and the cheese again was a greasy mess.
Dessert didn't appeal on either visit, so we popped in on a late morning while running errands along Speedway—and were glad we did. We ordered the apple chimi ($3, also available in a cherry variety) and a churro ($2). They came hot out of the fryer and were absolutely wonderful. Both were covered in cinnamon sugar. The chimis—you get two—were warm, sweet and almost puffy. The churro had a light crunch on the outside and was soft and sweet inside.
The people running Big Juan's seem to truly care about their business. They've created a pleasant venue, and the service is top-notch—but the food needs some work to bring it up to the level needed to compete in this town. A pinch of salt (and maybe some other seasonings) and quality products (especially cheese) would change a lot, and more than likely make Big Juan's a go-to kind of place.