Out in Madison on a Friday night, the hubby and I decided to stop in at El Olmeca (no relation to the one in Owen’s Cross Roads). When we arrived at 8pm there was a gaggle of teenaged boys in uniform hanging out up front. Their team had driven up from Florida for a championship. I note this not out of any malice for the boys themselves (they were polite and well behaved) but because when I see a large group waiting to be seated I assume that I am in for a very long wait. And I was hungry.
An inquiry with the host promised a reasonable 20 minute wait so we took a number and joined the would-be patrons milling about outside. It was a lovely night so we didn’t mind. I was impressed when we were called inside in just under 20 minutes.
The decor was neutral splashed with bright colors. The walls were made from light gray brick and black and white paintings were inset into the walls. The color came from the hand-painted chairs (both front and back), the table tops covered in laminated prints, and a sprinkling of painted reliefs on the wall by the bar. The booths sported wood back, plush leather seats, and a thin scrolly metalwork acting as dividers.
Our visit was during the world cup, so futbol was featured on every TV and the waitstaff would float over in odd moments to catch snippets of the game. The restaurant was loud with chatter, music, and clinking silverware. The lighting was dim enough that it caught my attention as we were seated, but not so low that it was difficult to see.
Our server appeared shortly after we were seated to take our drink preferences–one soft drink, one water. We settled in and placed our orders–one Steak Fajitas for me and a Burrito California for my husband. While we were sorting out our orders, chips (shown in the photo at the top of the post) arrived.
There were two notable things about these chips. First, they were dotted with red and green tortilla chips. I’m assuming this was a festive flair added for the World Cup, but I don’t know that for sure. (If you have the inside scoop, let us know!). The second was the accompaniment of pinto beans. When I saw a second cup, I thought that perhaps they had added a second variety of salsa. Instead what I discovered was a cup of strongly bacon-y beans with small bits of onion mixed in with the whole beans. Occasional bits of peppers lent a low level of spice. Perhaps because the beans were relatively mild, they went bolder with the salsa, the freshly pureed mix ranking a solid medium. The chips themselves were crunchy and warm, sturdy enough to pile high with beans and salsa but thin enough snap crisply when bit into. The red and green ones tasted a bit stale, I suspect their turnover rate is much lower.
As we snacked on the chips, we noticed that, despite the late hour the crowd was still going strong and the waitstaff was bustling to keep up. So it wasn’t really surprising that our food came out in spurts. First my fajita accessories, followed a short minute later by the sizzling platter of meat and veggies. Then a long, awkward pause, during which my fajitas stopped sizzling, before the hubby’s burrito arrived.
The thin steak strips in my fajita platter were well sauced, but it was a sauce that existed only on the exterior surface. The meat itself was a bit chewy. Sweet, slightly crunchy onions mingled with crisp multicolored peppers and tomatoes which were cooked until soft. I noted that one of the slices included a prominent stem spot–something that some people will shrug at and others will find totally awful. I sit somewhere between the two extremes and just pushed it aside.
The rice was suitably fluffy, featuring large pieces of occasional veggies. The beans were not salted, but were spicy to my taste. The hubby thought the spice was undetectable. The guacamole was salty and loaded down with lemon juice–a trick meant to preserve the color but which mostly made me pucker. The tortillas were tasty, but had that settled thickness and chewiness that usually belies commercial production offsite.
My husband was decidedly more impressed with his meal, proclaiming his burrito “delicious”. He loved the unusual addition of mushrooms and remarked on the quality of the chicken.
As our meal went on, the service declined. Drink refills took several beats too long, additional salsa was brought to our table but not chips or pintos. I was ready to chalk it up to the World Cup crowd until we reached the end of our meal. As we finished our meal, our server disappeared completely. We asked a random server for boxes, which she promptly brought, and packaged our leftovers, the whole time keeping an eye out for our server. Eventually, after much fruitless looking and failed eye contact, we managed to flag down a host, who brought us our check. Eventually, when our server still didn’t appear, we took our check up to the front counter ourselves. The woman working the counter seemed completely unfazed by our appearance, so perhaps this was the expected course of action?
The food at El Olmeca was on the better side of fine. There were sparks of intriguing things–the pinto beans served with the chips, the mushrooms in the burrito–and my husband greatly enjoyed his burrito. My fajitas were mediocre but not terrible. Unfortunately, the service fell to pieces. I understand that sometimes servers take breaks or have a crises elsewhere, but generally when that happens, another staff member will step in to help pick up the slack. Perhaps it was the crowd, but for whatever reason, our craning necks and attempts to make eye contact were missed as one staff member after another hustled past our table. I wouldn’t count El Olmeca out entirely, they could be worth a cautious try, but they aren’t at the top of our list.
Total for the meal: $24.95 (includes one fajita plate, one California burrito, and one soft drink)