925 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo NY 14222
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"As excited as we were to find a 'Tuna' Taco on the menu, we were grossed out as soon as we got through the fresh-sliced lettuce and tomato, only to discover tuna fish salad inside."
As much as we love Buffalo's Elmwood Avenue, we're not blind to its strengths and weaknesses. Eclectic indie shops? Check. Fun places to eat and drink heavily? Check. One of Buffalo's best farmers' markets? Big check. Good Mexican food? Ch... wait, not so fast. With higher-quality taco shops such as Salsarita's and Moe's located two or three miles away, the Elmwood strip's Mexican offerings are strictly what we're starting to think of as "Buff-Mex," stuff that resembles and costs as much as real Mexican food, but is far off the mark in flavor. Weak tacos and enchiladas might be enough to satisfy students during or after a night of heavy drinking, but they're not great overall, and the uninspired use of not-quite-there ingredients will disappoint those seeking truly thrilling or authentic cuisine.
Closer to the Buff State end of the strip is Elmwood Taco & Subs, a restaurant we've visited twice before now but not reviewed - each time, we liked what we tried, and wanted to come back again. Part of the appeal is visual: transformed years ago from a Burger King, ETS looks really nice inside for a counter service restaurant, starting with a clean, modern-looking dining area and using smart little touches like a vertically mounted flat screen TV with looping video promotions by the menus. The food comes out fairly quickly after an order, and there's a drive-through window on the side for those who don't want to stick around. We've eaten in, driven through, and taken out stuff to snack on while walking to the Elmwood Festival of the Arts. Certainly, there are definitely some fine items here.
That would be the American side of the menu - the waffle-cut French Fries ($2.50), as just one example, are consistently very good: large, a great balance of differentially crispy outsides and soft potato insides, crunching and yielding based on where in the waffle you are at a given moment. Additionally, the subs have size and fresh toppings as a virtue, though unlike most of the sub shops we've visited in this area, Elmwood Taco & Subs is weak on hot sub choices, promoting three variations on the sausage sub over virtually everything else - we had the $8 version with peppers and onions - and then using flat sausage patties rather than links for the meat. White or wheat sub roll choices are offered, and they're cooked a little before you get them. Filling? Yes. Fresh? Sure. Great? Not really. Fans of cold subs will find a wider variety of options, but as the people next to us noted while we ate, the food's well-suited to people who have been out drinking the night before.
Unfortunately, the Mexican stuff is a step or two below the American food; if it wasn't for the extremely low standards set by Mighty Taco, and the absence of better options within walking distance, Elmwood Taco and Subs wouldn't stand out. Take as just one example the Beef Enchilada ($5.50), served out of a microwave tray with little more than a splash of sour cream and some sliced black olives to distinguish it from something you'd find in the freezer section of a supermarket; the one we ordered wasn't even good enough to finish. Then there are the tacos. As excited as we were to find a "Tuna" Taco ($2.75) on the menu, we were grossed out as soon as we got through the fresh-sliced lettuce and tomato, only to discover tuna fish salad inside. Nothing says Mexican - well, Buff-Mex - like a little mayonnaise and cold fish in a supermarket-style hard taco shell. If it wasn't for the runny but spicy sauce ETS had added to the taco, it would have been an even bigger disappointment.
Overall, Elmwood Taco & Subs merits a rating of 2.25 stars, with the American half of its menu pulling up what would otherwise be a considerably lower grade for its Mexican food. It's one of the nicest-looking fast food-caliber places we've seen in Western New York, and some of its items make positive impressions, while others are lazy and lifeless. A reworking of its South-of-border cuisine would really help it stand out more from the crowd.
Cozumel Grill & Tequila Bar (153 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, NY 14201, 716.884.3866) is a very different story. Unlike Elmwood Taco & Subs, it's a full sit-down restaurant with table service, and the menu more substantially Mexican or Mexican-inspired: nachos and chiles rellenos come before quesadillas, fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos, and chimichangas, with wings, burgers, and wraps tossed in as American options. Virtually every plate save for larger entrees and smaller appetizers goes for $9 to $13, with a few appetizers and tacos at lower prices, and entrees reaching a high of $26.
The menu would suggest to some that Cozumel aspires to be a real Mexican restaurant, but in execution, it's more like a dingier Senor Frog's, a Mexican chain of bar-slash-restaurants designed to lure American tourists with alcohol and a party atmosphere. Apart from the fact that the big screen TVs went black for a while in the middle of a Bills game on our visit, we're not going to take issue in any way with the bar or drinks, which are clearly Cozumel's biggest attractions, and for that matter Senor Frog's. The problem at Cozumel is the food, which we wouldn't return to eat again.
Not everything was bad - meals start interestingly enough, with a basket of beautiful but seriously greasy multicolored tortilla chips, one filled with enough salsa for the rest of them. We disagreed on whether the salsa was decent or bad, but agreed that it tasted like it came straight from a supermarket salsa jar, and didn't have any indicia of just-made freshness. Then the weirdness began. We received our appetizer, a Stuffed Poblano Pepper ($9), a single green pepper that had been sliced in half and filled with an odd mix of sliced Italian sausage chunks and melted parmesan cheese - a combination which didn't appeal much to either our Mexican purist or our more tolerant diner. On a positive note, it came out physically hot; unfortunately, it only surpassed mediocrity of flavor at the tail end of the pepper, when a little spice was obvious in its green flesh.
Our hope had been to order more and better food, but Cozumel was out of the ingredients - not a good sign when a restaurant's already run out by lunch time. Shrimp for the $13 Cajun Grilled Rock Shrimp appetizer? Out. Lime juice for a margarita? Out. Blue corn tortillas for the $10 Blue Corn Steak Enchilada we ordered? Out, but rather than telling us it was out, the blue corn was surreptitiously replaced with a plain tortilla. What arrived was a gooey mess of cheese, unmarinated steak chunks, and a bland sauce - a disappointment even by the menu's low threshold of promised "seasoned steak." It wasn't worth finishing, and served alongside a ball of sour cream and some of the oldest-tasting rice we've ever had at a Mexican restaurant.
We weren't impressed by the freshness or flavor of the tacos we ordered, either. To Cozumel's partial credit, we were intrigued enough by its $11 Maryland Blue Crab Tacos to order them straight away, and found that they did in fact use real crab rather than the chunks of colored whitefish sold as imitation crab, a good start. But the crabmeat just didn't taste fresh, and both the hard and soft taco shells were the same stuff you'd find at any supermarket, filled with plain-tasting tomato and red onion chunks. There was nothing especially savory on the plate; the rice was once again pretty close to stale, and the big glob of sour cream removed any interest we had in eating the lettuce and tomatoes underneath.
It has been claimed that tacos are hard to screw up - they're nothing more than cooked meat, a tortilla, and some sauce, some suggest - but having had plenty of bad meat, weak sauce, bland tortillas, and thankfully their complete opposites, we'd thoroughly disagree. There are bad tacos, good tacos, and great tacos; you just have to know the difference and where to look for the great ones. After several weak plates and a lack of ingredients for other items we wanted to try, we left Cozumel with little interest in coming back unless something major changed in its kitchen. Consequently, no star rating is being issued at this time.
There's nothing whatsoever to say that Elmwood couldn't have a really excellent Mexican restaurant; to the contrary, the high-quality offerings at places such as Dolci, Pano's, Globe Market, and Wasabi demonstrate the strip's appetite and talent for all sorts of foods and desserts. But for the time being, the Mexican choices are limited and, in our view, poor. Consider them if you're planning on drinking while you're eating, or eating after serious drinking, but sober palates will find higher-quality fare a few miles away.