ESPARZA'S TEX-MEX CAFE 

2725 SE Ankeny St, 234-7909

With glowing mentions in The New York Times and Bon Appetit, one expects the food at Esparza's to be something special; You might think that the line trickling out the door on a Thursday night is an indication of exceptional Tex-Mex, worth a considerable sum. Well, certainly, Esparza's dècor, an amalgam of Western nostalgia, Texan brawn, and Tijuana cheese is executed with flair. Unfortunately though, no thematic coup can compensate for the fact that Esparza's food rarely exceeds mediocre, and never lives up to its price.

Authentic Tex-Mex is a less authentic version of Mexican cuisine, gentrified and supersized, but not without delicious results. Esparza's menu seeks a balance between familiar and exotic, offering standards like enchiladas and tacos alongside novelty meats such as ostrich and buffalo tongue.

The bulk of the clientele resides in a comfortable economic bracket and come down to the gritty Eastside to quaff top shelf margaritas and feast on manic kitsch. The hot corn chips and fresh salsa, which come fast and free, are the height of the meal. Smoked salmon enchiladas are just wrong; No quantity of barbecue sauce (in this case, cloying and acrid) is going to improve a tough, dry brisket. The pork tacos are equally dry, but the ground buffalo enchiladas are very macho and spicy (though they will linger painfully).

The beans and rice that accompany most entrees are utterly flavorless, a gratuitous use of space on the plate. Some people like beans and rice; Esparza's doesn't seem to care. It's a troublesome adage, "you get what you pay for," when you've gorged on flash and formula--and yet, you're starved for a good meal.

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