Picante Mexican GrillCambridge, MAPub/Cafe
2 Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
I came in knowing I was going to love it, but I was wrong.
I knew I was going to enjoy reviewing Picante Mexican Grill, because I dated a Mexican graduate student who liked the place and I’d been many times in the distant past. I met owner Richard Faulkner one morning just before they opened for lunch.
The place, while small, looks far less corporate than Chipotle or Quito’s, with decently authentic stuff on the walls and an open kitchen. There’s no table service, and you must bus your own plate, putting your dish and your trash in separate containers, but at least they have metal silverware.
The business was founded in 1990, and Richard was originally an investor, but he sold his florist business and became the owner in 1997. He encourages employees to create the menu, and feels they have more variety to their menu than competitive places like Boca Grande and Anna’s Tacqueria. “They mostly have tacos, burritos, and taco salads,” he says. “Here we have carnitas plates, chilis, fish on Fridays, and regular specials, like the carnitas verdes today.” And they have a free salsa bar.
“We have fresh meat shipped in daily,” he tells me, “except Sunday, and 90% of our products are fresh. We prep all day long, and have a casual atmosphere, with friendly staff and great food.”
They make their own food in house — spices, beans, rice, steak, and chicken — with a cuisine that Richard calls “fast food done well.” They offer catering to places as far as 25 miles away.
I try a sample plate, which came out instantly. The carnitas verdes was juicy, really good, with an unusual, very ethnic flavor. It’s slightly salty, like pulled pork but of course it is steak.
Unfortunately, I find the beans below average, uninteresting, without the smooth blended texture I’ve come to expect. The chicken with roast poblano came in a delicious cream sauce, and it was the spiciest dish I ate, but the vegetables were limp, overcooked. The steak sample itself was somewhat plain, a good chew with no gristle, but no flavoring either and it came in strangely sized chunks that were too small to really bite into.
The pappas came with red and green peppers, onions, potatos, and mild chili sauce, which had a good mouth feel — the potato melts in your mouth — but it was bland. The limeade was wondrous, sweet but also sour, sharp & interesting, served with ice (why does everyone put ice in drinks in the winter?), and it became sharp towards the bottom of the cup, making me wonder if it was poorly blended. Still, it’s damn good limeade for $2.
The guacamole and chips could have been served at a bar. If anything has been added to the guacamole, I can’t taste it, and the chips are cold and generic. If they make these chips here on site, I’d be very surprised.
In sum, Picante Mexican Grill does not match my memory. I remember I used to love the sauces here, but I try every one anew and didn’t find one that I liked. The texas salsa is okay, but uninspired.
What happened? Has Picante Mexican Grill changed in the last few years, or have I just been spoiled by going to El Pelon Taqueria in Brighton, which is a masterful combination of fast but delicious food? I would say that if you want mainstream meals like burritos, you are better off going to Anna’s Tacqueria or Boca Grande, which serve them piping hot and rich. If you want off-beat and ethnic specials, like the carnitas verdes, Picante Mexican Grill is an inexpensive and convenient alternative to restaurants… but still, if they cannot get beans, chips, and salsa right… how much love can I give?
Although it would not compete in the restaurant category, I am satisfied to give it a decent rating in the pub/cafe tier (about our ratings), which is where we categorize places without table service.
735 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA