Earlier this year I wrote a long blog post about what makes a Mexican restaurant stand out. I zeroed in on the signature item that comes out in a basket when you sit down—chips. Now I am still pretty adamant that good tortilla chips paired with a flavorful salsa can bring any family Mexican restaurant to the next level. But this past weekend I had an experience that teleported me back to my childhood and also reminded me that there are other ways that Mexican restaurants can separate themselves from the pack.
On Saturday night, my wife, kids, and I piled into the car. We were actually going to pick up sandwiches at Jimmy John’s but as we were driving down Trent in Spokane Valley a small (dare I say hole-in-the-wall?) Mexican restaurant called Dos Amigos caught our eye. Sidney and I looked at each other and that’s all it took for me to signal out of the turn lane we were in and go through the intersection and then switch lanes again so we could reach Dos Amigos which was on the other side of the street.
Despite its diminutive size, the restaurant had character with murals on the walls and pinatas hanging from the ceiling. With delicious food, low prices, exceptional service, and (yes) good chips, we were satisfied. But then came the literal cherry on top. As our server cleared our dishes she announced that she would be right back with dessert. Again, Sidney and I looked at each other.
Soon thereafter the server came back with four dishes that each contained a sopapilla topped with whipped cream and cherry sauce. The festive desserts, which are essentially cinnamon and sugar fried dough, were fun and fresh. It was totally unexpected but made our visit to Dos Amigos even more special. Sloan had never seen anything like that before.
But I had.
Granted, it had been a long time. When I was a kid, there was a Mexican restaurant called Rancho Chico that my family always went to for nearly a decade before Azteca opened closer to our house. Besides the bad checks plastered to the wall behind the cash register and the oversized sombrero that was placed on the heads of people celebrating a birthday, the fried dough dessert the servers never failed to bring out at the end of the meal was another pleasant memory.
However, the memory grew faint as I visited Mexican restaurant after Mexican restaurant for the ensuing couple decades only to get a mint at the end of dinner if I was lucky. But the childhood magic was rekindled this past weekend when Dos Amigos pulled a page out of Rancho Chico’s playbook.
Do the chips at your Mexican restaurant suck? Hope is not entirely lost. Salvage the dining experience of your customers by offering sopapillas. I can you tell you this, Dos Amigos now holds a special place in the hearts of our kids. Don’t Blink.