Good Lookin' Mexican

Casino del Sol's Tequila Factory restaurant puts an emphasis on presentation.

My, how times have changed in the casino business over the last 15 years.

The Mirage hotel-casino in Las Vegas ushered in the boom that's still going on in Sin City today. Opened in 1989, it was upscale and huge. More and more casinos--some more upscale, some larger--arose in Las Vegas through the 1990s, bringing with them some of the largest names in the culinary world. In went Wolfgang Puck's Spago and Emeril's; out went the $3.99 "prime" rib special.

Another enormous change hit the casino world in the 1990s: Indian gaming. Today, Nevada-style casinos aren't just in Nevada (and Atlantic City); they dot the country.

Of course, Tucson's no exception, with the gorgeous expansion of the Pascua Yaqui's Casino del Sol opening earlier this year. That begs the question: Does this Nevada-style casino have top-notch food like Nevada casinos?

A recent visit to Casino del Sol's largest restaurant, the Tequila Factory, reveals the answer: This ain't Emeril's, but it ain't bad, either.

Irene Messina joined me for a recent weekday lunch at the Tequila Factory. After walking through the smoky casino (having spent a good chunk of my life around casinos, the smoke didn't bother me, but Irene took note), we strolled into the restaurant--and into a plethora of colors.

When the Casino del Sol folks came up with the color scheme for the Tequila Factory, the word "muted" was not part of the plans. The tile floor is brown, but the walls are every color you can imagine. Blue-green tiles make up one wall; another wall is red with fake windows. The bar is made up of a mosaic with bright colors, and a belt with bottles of tequila rotates over the bartenders' area. A brick wall separates two of the rooms. The back room features potted green plants, and overhead, there are pointy star-shaped objects and hanging lights. The tables are lacquered wood, and near the booth we sat at, large vases filled with real flowers decorated an adjacent wall. (Real flowers in a restaurant earn it major points in my book.) And, of course, faux agave tequila factory equipment is scattered around--hence the name. Irene loved the look, while I thought it was nice, although a bit much.

After ordering a virgin strawberry margarita for me and a soda for Irene--we were tempted to go nuts with the 80-plus kinds of tequila featured, but we didn't want to return to the office hammered--we surveyed the menu. A handful of sandwiches, appetizers, soups and salads are offered, as well as enchiladas, tacos, burritos, fajitas, combination plates, shrimp and snapper. The menu's comprehensive enough, although vegetarians, such as Irene, have limited options. Finally, an all-you-can-eat champagne brunch buffet is available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday ($17.95, $14.95 seniors, $10.95 children 12 and under; reservations recommended).

Irene ordered the gazpacho del sol soup ($3.25) and the Monterrey combination plate ($9.50, including two green corn tamales and an Anaheim chile relleno), while I chose the sopa de tortilla ($2.95) and the Veracruz combination plate ($13.95, including charbroiled jumbo shrimp and two chicken tacos).

When our server--who, while competent, was rather unenergetic--brought our soups, we were impressed with how colorful they both were, just like the restaurant decor. Irene's gazpacho was thick with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and bell pepper (the menu says it also includes squash), and it packed a spicy punch. Irene, not a fan of spicy food, was somewhat taken aback by the kick, while I rather liked the taste I had. Meanwhile, I enjoyed my tortilla soup, with its chicken broth base and avocados, cheese, onions, tomatoes and at least three different colors of tortillas. My only criticism is that could have used a bit more salt--so, duh, I added some salt.

The key detail from above is that there were three different colors of tortillas used in the soup; this serves as an example of how the folks at the Tequila Factory are clearly putting an emphasis on how the food looks. Color is key, and in that area, they do a wonderful job. A passing enchilada plate, also featuring several different colors of tortillas on a bright plate, looked like a work of art, with all the different hues; this aspect differentiates the Tequila Factory from other restaurants.

When our main courses arrived, we learned that the food's taste, on occasion, takes a back seat to the food's look. Make no mistake--the food overall was fine--but mine, at least, suffered from some flaws.

My shrimp were absolutely delicious. The garlic lime butter and black pepper coating the four shrimp made my taste buds figuratively jump for joy. However, these were not jumbo shrimp--they were medium-sized, at best. (Yes, I know shrimp shrink substantially when cooked, but these were still not jumbo.) And while my taco's ingredients--chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole--were all fresh and tasty, the flour tortillas were cold to the touch, as if someone had just taken them out of the refrigerator. The beans were nothing special, although I was surprised to see that the rice included peas, carrots and tomatoes. If I had gotten true jumbo shrimp and adequately prepared tortillas, this would have been a fantastic meal; as it turned out, it was only so-so, especially considering the nearly $14 I paid for it.

Irene, meanwhile, was thrilled with her meal. The chile relleno was coated in a crunchy, dark brown batter that was unusually sweet; however, it worked along with the tomatillo sauce, and Irene noted that she wished her meal had come with another. Her green corn tamales were moist and tasty--and quickly devoured.

For dessert, I chose the flan con caramelo ($3.95), and Irene ordered the tres leches cake (a pricey $5.95). Fried ice cream with a mango custard sauce is also available for $4.95.

The desserts, keeping with the theme, were beautiful. Irene's tres leches almost had as much whipped-cream-like frosting as vanilla cake, and the accompanying milks made it even sweeter--and very rich. Red sauce also garnished the plate, adding to the visual palate. My flan with caramel was also rather sweet, and it was also quite good, featuring a slightly smoky flavor. On my plate, little flowers of whipped cream surrounded the circular custard.

It appears that the folks at Casino del Sol have a winner, albeit a flawed one, on their hands with the Tequila Factory. If you like looking at food, you'll think this place is heaven. If you like eating food--and who doesn't?--the Tequila Factory has some high points and some room to improve. But it certainly isn't bad, and in some cases, as Irene will tell you, it's worth the drive down Valencia.

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