Review: Moe's Southwest Grill specializes in 'fast casual' Tex-Mex

At Moe's Southwest Grill, there is definitely a method to the madness - to wit, reasonably tasty "fast casual" Tex-Mex cuisine - but, on first or even second visit, it's not easy to figure out all the elements and motifs that assault you as you enter.

First, by some Moe-ian decree, all of the behind-the-counter folks are required to shout, "Welcome to Moe's!" when you walk in. This is certainly embarrassing for all parties, including diners, but particularly for a 17-year-old kid sculpting tacos as a summer job. It reminds me of the Judge Reinhold character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," who had to wear his fast food pirate suit when delivering an order of fish 'n' chips to a corporate luncheon.

Next, you're faced with a huge menu hanging on the wall, from which you decide on your order before entering the serving line, where the aforementioned counter folks will make your food. On the surface, your choices are pretty basic: quesadillas, fajitas, tacos, nachos, salads or rice bowls. There are typically chicken, ground beef, steak, pork, vegetarian and tofu (!) options for each. Based on slight recipe variations, these items have a "clever" nickname with a seemingly random nod to pop culture. A basic quesadilla is called a "John Coctostan" - a reference to the movie "Fletch" - whereas a plate of vegetarian nachos is "Ruprict," which I assume is a misspelling of a Steve Martin guise in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Not sure what the connections to these and Tex-Mex might be. After you stare at the menu, perhaps focusing not so much on the culinary properties of the choices but what the hell a "Joey Bag of Donuts" has to do with burritos, you enter the serving line. Feeling completely idiotic, you announce your decision. For example, you might say, "I'll have an 'Overachiever' with chicken (a deluxe taco), a 'Close Talker' with pork (a basic salad), and one 'Joey Bag of Donuts,' with ground beef and one 'Joey Bag of Donuts' with steak."

Naturally, many customers forget some of the nicknames or screw up the nicknames. But let's assume you get your order in. You next go down the extraordinary list of free, fresh ingredients you can apply to your food. There are 25 different possibilities - from roasted corn pico and pinto beans to sliced limes and grilled mushrooms - which is pretty cool, but it's also overwhelming, since you're ever-aware that there are people behind you. The good news is that Moe's experience is actually growing on me because I'm getting the routine down.

To dine in, Moe's is a large, open room with booths and tables and some big-screen televisions for sports. It's a step up from a Wendy's, but nothing special.

My wife, who eschews meat, is delighted by the tofu and numerous veggie alternatives, and we both love the fact that it's essentially fast food that nonetheless has, for two examples, quality cilantro and pico de gallo. Eileen has tried the tofu rice bowl ($7.69 and called, curiously enough just the "tofu rice bowl") and the "Fat Sam" tofu fajitas ($10.49). She liked both, but wishes the tofu on the Fat Sam had had a crispier exterior to more accurately replicate the fajita experience.

Myself, I've enjoyed a chicken "Homewrecker" burrito ($7.79), adding black olives, cheese, pickled jalapenos, rice and about 16 other ingredients, and a ground beef "Overachiever" taco ($3.79) with guacamole and sour cream and several more free addendi.

This underscores a descriptive problem: each item is so custom-built, with so many different flavor possibilities, that you can't really compare a standard by-definition beef burrito to what you might enjoy at Moe's.

The truth is, the stuff IS fresh and, if the core meat/tofu selections are a bit bland, well, you can nuance that with toppings or through shrewd manipulation of a salsa bar that features several flavorful, house-made salsas.

The glutton tendency - at least so far as I'm concerned - means that the servings are huge, ridiculously filling, and pleasantly tasty without any actual gourmet overtones.

As appetizers, guacamole ($1, $3.29 and $5.29) has a lot of chopped textures and a strong tomato/cilantro overdrive to the avocado base, and queso ($1, $3.29 and $5.29) is a thick, smooth, white cheese version with a nice if moderate spice kick. Both are served with hot tortilla chips.

Moe's Southwest Grill

903-915 Hartford Turnpike
Waterford Commons Mall, Waterford
(860) 574-9059

Cuisine: Daily-fresh, myriad-ingredient, casual Tex-Mex and Southwestern. While limited on the surface to burritos, quesadillas, tacos, et cetera, there are dozens of spins you can apply. There are plenty of vegetarian and even tofu choices, and a small kids' menu is available as well.

Ambience: Enter into a cafeteria-style serving line and give your order to the counter folks, who will in turn walk you through the dazzling number of possibilities that can be applied to each item.

Service: Very friendly and eager to please, the staff seems mostly younger folks who might be working on summer vacation or post-school.

Prices: All orders are a la carte and might seem a bit steep. Burritos, quesadilla and rice bowls range from $6.59 to $8.29; tacos are slightly cheaper and fajitas a bit more - but the serving sizes are up to you and can quickly reach "enormous."

Handicap access: Moe's is in a strip center, with a ramp inset into the curb and only one wide door to get through. Inside is very spacious.

Credit cards: All majors accepted.

Reservations: Not necessary.


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