Taco Time: Limited Mexican Menus at Moe's & Salsarita's

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Salsarita's Fresh Cantina
3901 Union Rd. #100, Cheektowaga, NY 14225
Web: Salsarita's Fresh Cantina
Phone: 716.633.8484
Rating:    [learn more]
Pros:

A limited menu of popular Mexican dishes, prepared quickly and attractively from extremely fresh ingredients to your specific preferences. Great salsas and very solid overall food quality. Patrons can also enjoy a wide assortment of drinks without the trappings or prices of a typical full-service restaurant.


Cons:

Counter-based service and limited menu straddle the line between fast food and traditional Mexican restaurants in a progressive way that may put off some diners looking for either cheap Mexican or a full-service meal.


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"Despite their roots in the Southern U.S., either of these chains' locations offers better and more authentic fast Mexican food than Mighty Taco or Taco Bell."


Thanks to a huge Mexican population, Mexican restaurants were so numerous when we lived in Southern California that we realized how deprived we'd been in Western New York: our conceptions of this legitimately great cuisine had been based on Mighty Taco and Chi-Chi's, and we frankly had no idea what we'd been missing. In California, even chain taco restaurants - La Salsa, Baja Fresh, and so on - were comparatively great, and though we've recently come across good local full-service Mexican places such as La Tolteca, we're thrilled to see that Buffalo has also started to benefit from efforts to evolve the simple taco shop into something considerably better.

Developed in North Carolina, Salsarita's Fresh Cantina is a franchised Mexican chain restaurant with short, simple menus of fresh Mexican foods and "quick" drinks, served from a counter in a classy, clean dining area. The concept here is relatively simple: Salsarita's offers key, popular elements of the large Mexican restaurant experience in an unusually nice but still almost fast food-style environment, removing the table service and high-end meals to keep pricing reasonable - assuming that you don't drink. Unlike most of the area's taco shops, Salsarita's offers its meals alongside Pina Coladas and Daiquiris, full-sized pitchers of Sangria, or Margaritas, the sort of beverages you wouldn't find at a Taco Bell.

The tacos, burritos, and salads are also well beyond the area's Taco Bells and Mighty Tacos in taste, beauty, and yes, pricing. Single tacos sell here for $2.80 to $3.20 depending on whether you go vegetarian ($2.80), add ground beef or grilled chicken ($2.89), upgrade to shredded pork or beef or grilled steak ($2.99), or choose shrimp ($3.20) as your ingredient; sets of three tacos are sold for between $7.10 and $8.29 depending on the same choices.

If that sounds a little pricey, understand up front that you're getting what you're paying for: you are involved in selecting freshly prepared fillings ranging from rice to black beans, grilled vegetables, red onions, jalapenos, cilantro, sour creams, guacamole and cheese. As a consequence, even a plain ground beef taco is going to use better-tasting ingredients than you'll get at a Mighty Taco, and you'll find a steak or chicken taco comparatively mouth-watering. Burritos, quesadillas, salads, nachos, and enchiladas are also offered with the same customizations. Large menu items top out in price at around $8.50, but typically fall in the $5 to $6 range.

After a short trip to the counter, we therefore found ourselves with steak and shrimp tacos that looked and tasted great: a shrimp taco loaded with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and jalapenos popped with color and fresh flavor, while we ordered three more bare steak tacos with no lettuce in order to take advantage of the restaurant's salsa bar. Ranging from mild to hot, four delicious types of salsa were available in quantities limited only by the small serving cups and our appetites; we scooped up a bunch of the cups and used them to spice up our tacos. The results were as close as we've come locally to our very favorite California taquerias, which is to say, something close to great.

We were also impressed by the Steak Taco Salad, a massive edible bowl containing everything from lettuce and steak to mounds of cheese, guacamole, tomatoes, and peppers; like the tacos, the cube-sliced meat was right on in quantity, flavor, and doneness to enjoy in this format. Two of us left the place filled, happy, and willing to come back again, stifled only by the location - would this really be the first place we'd pick for a meal near the Galleria Mall? Perhaps not. But should the franchises expand further into the suburbs, as they have into West Chippewa in Buffalo, we'd expect to visit more often. By the standards of local counter-style Mexican places, Salsarita's is a strong choice; thanks to its freshness and the variety of customizations available for its very satisfying entrees, it's worthy of a three-star rating.

Salsarita's Fresh Cantina on Urbanspoon

Salsarita's Fresh Cantina on Urbanspoon

In essence, Moe's Southwest Grill (5063 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221; 716.634.7200) is Salsarita's, only with more local locations and a little less class. Created by a team in Atlanta, Georgia and similarly nationally franchised, Moe's gets our nod for picking the right places in the suburbs to open up shops: there's one each near the Boulevard and Eastern Hills Malls, and another down the road from the McKinley Mall in Orchard Park, each in a strip mall with adequate parking. The first time we walked into a Moe's location, we - and everyone else coming in - were "greeted" with a loud chant from all the employees behind the place's large prep and serving counter: "Welcome to Moe's," said with a certain either bored or knowing inflection that reminded us of the days when Cold Stone Creamery's employees were forced to sing for tips.

Thankfully, just as Cold Stone has stopped its noisy salutes, our most recent visits to Moe's have been chant-free, though the effect has been to strip a little of this chain's personality away. Unlike Salsarita's, Moe's locations have struck us as a little cramped, not quite as clean, and less appealing from a menu standpoint - there aren't any fancy drinks or as many types of ingredients - but to their credit, they still do a good job, and also seem to be busier. For some reason, the menu choices are all under initially confusing names: tacos for instance are the "funk meister," "unanimous decision," and "overachiever," differing only in price and the presence of meat, sour cream, and guacamole. You get to pick from hard or soft shells, the type of beans - or none - you prefer, and whether to include items such as cheese, salsa, and lettuce with your grilled chicken, steak, pulled pork, ground beef, or tofu. Just like Salsarita's, there are also fajitas, salads, quesadillas, and nachos on the menu, each a small variant on the basic tacos, and all with semi-funny names that only vaguely indicate the differences in toppings. They're supposed to make you laugh, but really only hold up the line of waiting people while first- and third-time visitors alike stumble through the choices.

Like the decor, which is a step or two above a Taco Bell or Burger King but a step below Salsarita's, we'd describe the many items we've tried at Moe's as pretty good. While our soft shell tacos weren't bursting with color or available with quite as many options as at Salsarita's, the chicken and steak were equally tasty - all that Moe's is missing is the shrimp taco option that we came to love in California, then Mexico, then at Salsarita's. Once again, a salsa bar lets you add additional tomatoes, herbs, and spices to your tacos if they don't arrive with enough to sate you.

Fajitas similarly aren't beautiful, but provide more than enough of your chosen meat, vegetables, cheeses and sauces to create three oversized tacos of your own with included tortillas, plus a bit of overflow; it's like ordering a three-taco platter at Salsarita's, but with a fourth taco worth of extra toppings left over at the end. Salads, like the "Close Talker" lettuce, bean, cheese, salsa, cucumber, and olive one shown here, can be customized with grilled meat and either ranch or vinaigrette dressing; burritos come in three ascending versions like the tacos, and arrive overstuffed with rice, veggies, meat, and sauce. They're three or four times the size of Taco Bell burritos, and much tastier: fresh, with great rice.

Due mostly to the entrees but also to the complementary, fine chips and good salsa offered with Moe's meals, it's hard to walk away hungry or dissatisfied from a lunch or dinner here. On every occasion, we've been pleased with the quality and quantity of ingredients, the speed with which meals are assembled at the counter, and the taste of the items even before we get to the salsa bar and mix our own spicy tomato additions with the tacos. Our most recent visit to pick up a take-out order was also entirely satisfactory: each of our telephone requests was confirmed ingredient by ingredient, and delivered precisely as ordered, without mistakes. So many places - even really good ones - screw this up that we appreciate when a place like Moe's takes smart steps and gets everything right.

Overall, if we were picking our favorite places to grab a quick taco locally, we'd put Salsarita's a bit above Moe's in every category save for convenience. While we prefer the extra ingredients and other options on Salsarita's menu, Moe's locations are always near places we're visiting, and the food's always good enough to make us willing to return - worthy of 2.5 stars overall. Despite their roots in the Southern U.S., either of these chains' locations offers better and more authentic fast Mexican food than Mighty Taco or Taco Bell; we'd therefore strongly encourage readers to do their palates a favor and try these options, particularly with some hand-selected salsa, to find out what they've been missing.

Moe's Southwest Grill on Urbanspoon

Moe's Southwest Grill on Urbanspoon

Moe's Southwest Grill on Urbanspoon


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Comments (2)

Chris B :

You are being a bit generous with a 3 star review. Although I will frequent these places on occasion, these are 2 star "mexican" places at best. They only benefit from a lack of competition. Mighty Taco and Taco bell are not fair comarisons... these places are convenience foods on the cheap and have the advantage of drive-though. Now that Chiptole's is open I dont see the need to go to Salsarita's or Moe's unless the location is convenient. Chipotle's is similar, but has better quality food all around. If I want a sit-down restarant La Tolteca's is by far the best in the area

Chipotle hasn't even served its first meal in Buffalo yet as of the time of these comments - as of literally yesterday, it was still training its employees how to make the food - so let's wait a little before jumping to any conclusions as to its relative quality.

Moe's was rated 2.5 stars and Salsarita's 3 stars, though it should be noted that we've twice visited the newer Salsarita's location on Transit Road and found it on both occasions to be a step under the Cheektowaga location we'd dined at before. Our experiences outside the area have led us to see the distinctions between these restaurants, Taco Bell, and Mighty Taco as being largely trivial - there are many potential shades of gray but the only real differentiators here are food quality and the presence of drive-through lanes. That said, taco and burrito places are obviously not replacements for a good Mexican restaurant, any more than a good Mexican restaurant fully replaces the need for a truly great one.

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