1465 Hertel Ave., Buffalo, NY 14216
Web: Gramma Mora's
Rating: [learn more]
Perhaps the area's oldest Mexican restaurant, possessing a large menu filled with choices that span the range of locally predictable Mexican options; dishes are reasonably if not generously proportioned for their prices, and meals start with free chips and salsa. Friendly, attentive service.
Thanks to mediocre seasonings, marination, and preparation, little of the food tastes authentically Mexican, even by somewhat lower local standards. Overall standard of food is merely passable.
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"The dishes we've eaten here bear only a modest resemblance to the authentic Mexican foods we've loved elsewhere - and found at least well-approximated in Western New York."
During our review of local cranberry wines last month, we came across a bottle that was fine, but had almost no actual cranberry flavor; whatever it was, it wasn't really cranberry wine. As long-time fans of Mexican food, we can say with equal certainty that Gramma Mora's on Hertel Avenue - perhaps the best-known Mexican restaurant in the City of Buffalo, dating back nearly 30 years - is today to Mexican cuisine what that drink was to cranberry wines; it's possible to have an entire meal here with items that sound Mexican, look Mexican, and would pass as Mexican in the absence of any point of reference. But even if they're filling, which they are, they don't really taste Mexican: newer restaurants we've reviewed in Cheektowaga and Amherst do a better job on authentic flavors, as well as pricing.
After securing a parking spot on Hertel, which always seems to be at least a little challenging, we arrived at Gramma Mora's ready to eat. Without delay, a complimentary dish of tortilla chips and salsa was quickly placed on our table, and we were pleased by our friendly and attentive server, ordering a glass of Sangria ($4) to kick off the evening. As we looked over the extensive but locally predictable menu - tacos, burritos, nachos, enchiladas and salads, without high-end Mexican seafood or ceviche options - we noted that the chips were on the fine edge of stale, while the salsa was fine but thin, lacking in anything fresh or chunky such as tomatoes. The Sangria was a plain, semi-dry red with a couple of orange slices tossed in, adding little to the flavor. This wasn't a great start to the meal, but we wrote them off; surely something would stand out here as good.
Unfortunately, things didn't get much better from there. For appetizers, we picked tacos, first a Hard Shell Taco with Chorizo ($3), which was overflowing with fresh, thin-sliced lettuce, and reasonably filled in the center with what was supposed to be spicy pork sausage; some cubed tomatoes were mixed in, as well. As much as we've had and enjoyed chorizo in the past, considering it a guilty pleasure, the taco's mushy, bland meat would have been unidentifiable as such; it could as well have been low-grade ground beef. Low on flavor, we've made better hard shell tacos at home, and we possess no great talent for Mexican cooking; we've recently had equally mediocre, cheaper tacos at Taco Bell and Mighty Taco.
Though we were concerned about the price, we felt obliged to order the Soft Shell Taco with Fajita Steak ($7) to sample Gramma Mora's Mexican steak preparation - other restaurants such as La Tolteca, Salsarita's, and Moe's often place carne asada or comparably delicious beef in their steak tacos, and sell them for much less. On a positive note, the version here was oversized, perhaps two or three times as large as the hard shell above, and though the steak wasn't generous, it wasn't offensively sparse, either. The problem again was in the flavor: the small pieces of cube-cut meat were cooked chewy, and barely marinated or spiced in a way to distinguish them from plain beef. On paper, this taco might have been Mexican, but as with the hard shell, it didn't taste much different from what an amateur chef might attempt in a home kitchen.
Our entrees were comparatively beautiful, if nothing else. One of us took the server's "what's good" recommendation and went with the Chimichanga ($14), a deep-fried, homemade burrito served under dollops of sour cream and guacamole. Though it was surrounded by colorful, cosmetically appealing side items - we chose Mexican rice and beans - the version here looked as if it had come out of a freezer package, the beef once again chewy and utterly bland in flavor, possessing little to no characteristic Mexican seasoning, and accompanied inside the flour shell by similarly lifeless green peppers and onions; unlike common chimichangas, there was no rice inside, and if there was any cheese, it was undetectable. The side beans tasted canned, and the rice was dry and lacking in flavor; it all left us without a desire to finish the plate.
The other entree, called Gramma Mora's Special ($12), was ordered to give the restaurant an opportunity to impress with a signature dish. Described on the menu as lean pork or chicken simmered in a green chile sauce - a "favorite for the lover of hot spicy food" - we were warned by the server that the dish would be especially spicy on this night, suggesting that the pre-made sauce was suffering from an overabundance of chili content. Bring it on, we said; we are, in fact, "lovers of hot spicy food." But there were two surprises: the green "chili verde" sauce wasn't there, replaced instead with a heavily overspiced red tomato and chili alternative. And the pork we'd ordered became unavailable at the last minute, replaced - with our permission - by chicken. While certainly spicy, not a problem for our palates, the sauce and meat had no depth of flavor; it was akin to home-sauteeing chunks of chicken in ground tomatoes and chilis without a proper marinade. To say that the highlight of the entree was the included side of Sopa de Fideo - thin vermicelli noodles cooked in what tasted like the spice packet from a box of Rice-a-Roni - would be wholly accurate, if not exactly complimentary.
More for sake of completeness than anything else, we decided to try one of the desserts in hopes that it might end the meal on a high note. Given a handful of roughly $5 choices such as a brownie sundae, Tollhouse cookie pie, flan, and a couple of apple tortilla options, we went with the Mexican Fried Ice Cream ($5), a dish that we've had many different ways, and seldom left unfinished. Described as "coated ice cream on a fried shell," Gramma Mora's version featured a tiny scoop of ice cream that had been covered in granola and honey, then surrounded on a plate by whipped cream and chocolate-drizzed, fried chips; the menu's promised cherry was nowhere to be found. Like everything else we ordered, the fried ice cream looked nice, but wasn't really fried or satisfying. Breaking with tradition, we stopped before finishing the plate of unsweetened chips.
Though the stories of Gramma Mora's past glories were familiar and appealing to us when we entered the restaurant, the dishes we've eaten here bear only a modest resemblance to the authentic Mexican foods we've loved elsewhere - and found at least well-approximated in Western New York. Once known as a local standard-bearer for true Mexican cuisine, it now calls to mind this area's less impressive history of offering Latin dishes that wouldn't pass muster in their mother countries. Thankfully, there are much better options around here - for other cuisines on Hertel, and Mexican in the suburbs - and should you not be concerned about the authenticity of your meal, this place may do in a pinch. If so, we can recommend a nice bottle of something close enough to cranberry wine that you might want to check out, too.