Marketing-Made Mex

Yet another chain Mexican restaurant has come to Tucson, and we have to ask: Why?

One of the newest additions to this town's long and varied list of Mexican restaurants is Bajio Mexican Grill, a franchise fast-casual place that claims to serve up authentic food from the Bajio region of Mexico.

The décor is also "authentic," to quote the folks at Bajio. On the walls are paintings of the Bajio mascot, a doe-eyed guy wearing a big sombrero in a variety of scenes from Old Mexico. Ethnic stereotyping? Let's not go there. Other south-of-the-border touches include copper pots, Talavera tile and stencil-cut lighting.

We stopped in midweek for dinner. It was hotter than 100 degrees that night, but the small dining area was nicely cooled. This being a fast-casual joint, customers order off the menu that hangs on the wall and then travel along a counter where all of the accompaniments are.

There is a long and varied list of accompaniments, including red chile enchilada sauce; sweet green chile sauce; pico de gallo, tomatillo and mango salsa; refried, borracha and black beans; sweet and Mexican rice; sour cream; honey-glazed chicken; mesquite-lime chicken; beef; pork; caramelized sweet onions; tortilla chips, cheese (a combo of cheddar and Monterrey Jack); fiesta corn; and, I think, guacamole. Have I forgotten anything?

You have to decide what accompaniments you want pretty quickly, too. Bajio is not unlike Subway (which is actually financially connected to Bajio). That explains the cafeteria feel of the preparation.

John ordered a beef chimichanga and some refried beans ($7.49). I had two shrimp tacos and the borracha beans ($8.49). We had a soda each ($1.69). There is a good assortment of beers, but we opted out of those.

The chimi was not prepared in the traditional deep-fried way (although the menu says it is). Instead, it was browned on a griddle. It was then topped with the tomatillo salsa and a dab of sour cream.

My shrimp tacos consisted of chopped shrimp that was quickly heated up on the griddle and served on two warmed flour tortillas. I had the counter person add a small amount of cheese and some mango salsa.

We both agreed that the food would certainly please the gringo crowd, but it was lacking a certain zest. The beef in the chimi was tender but tasted more like an unseasoned pot roast. There was rice in it as well, a choice John wouldn't have made if he'd had the time to think it over. And the chimi wasn't crispy.

My shrimp, too, was pretty tame, and because it had been cooked in honey butter and topped with the mango salsa, it was sweet instead of savory. Both types of beans were just that--beans. No heat, no spice, no depth. Just beans.

And everything is served in aluminum tins, which makes eating awkward.

When Karyn and I visited at lunchtime on a Saturday, her reaction to the whole scheme of things was pretty much the same. She also noted that because of the setup, it was hard to hear what the person working the counter was asking.

We ordered a chicken green chile salad that was topped with a sweet chile chutney, caramelized onions and tortilla strips ($6.99). There was a flour tortilla on the side. We also picked the pineapple shrimp salad with sweet rice and cheese, and half of a fried tortilla ($8.49).

Finally, we tried the Mexican pizza ($6.99) and filled it with both types of chicken--mesquite lime and the honey glazed--black beans, the red enchilada and green sauces, onions, melted cheese and sour cream. We stuck with sodas to drink.

Of the two salads, the chicken was the better choice. We found it sweet but lacking any heat, and Karyn thought the tortilla tasted industrial. The pineapple shrimp salad was overly sweet, and the rice at the bottom was on the verge of souring. It was not as appealing as it sounded when I ordered it.

The pizza in reality is a sandwich made of two fried tortillas with all the above-mentioned items either in between or on top of the tortillas. I was disappointed with both the texture and the taste of the enchilada sauce. It didn't come close to the real thing.

We engaged in plenty of discussion as to why people would choose to eat at such a place as Bajio Mexican Grill. Tucson has some of the best Mexican food around--the real stuff. None of us felt the food was anywhere near "authentic," despite the company spin that the Bajio region is known for its food and culture.

Karyn and I did a little research, and we discovered that while the Bajio region is the "breadbasket of Mexico," there really isn't Bajio regional cooking, say, like in Sonora, Veracruz or Oaxaca. The whole thing is plain-old marketing.

Bajio Mexican Grill is ideal for those who may not have or who are reluctant to try one of the many local joints. But for the rest of us, it just won't cut it.

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