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From State College to Orlando, Tex-Mex Reigns Supreme

by on July 27, 2015 3:17 PM

When my wife and I moved into our one-bedroom apartment in Orlando in the mid-1980's we were embarking on a journey 1,000 miles away from family and friends that we thought would last a year or two, and somehow lasted almost to the 21st century.

At the time we were true-blue, red-blooded DINKs (Dual-Income, No Kids), made friends with many other DINK couples, and did what all DINK couples did in O-Town back then – went out to eat on a regular basis. DINK couples also bought boats, so we did that as well. The salesman's line that sold us – OK, sold me – was, "He who dies with the most toys wins." But that's a story for another day.

Of all the consumer temptations Orlando flesh was heir to, casual dining was near the top. And Orlando restauranteurs were only too happy to provide hundreds of options. Between I-Drive, Sand Lake Road, and Lake Buena Vista, rarely a month went by without a new dining establishment opening up. Orlando being home to Darden Restaurants, Inc., the corporate parent of Olive Garden and Red Lobster at that time, meant new concepts were usually tried out there, and plenty of other corporations followed suit. We used to joke if you couldn't make a restaurant work on I-Drive it didn't stand a chance in regular America. (My kids tell me there is now a network TV sitcom that uses exactly this premise as the basis for the show.)

Sometime in those early years in central Florida we tried a new place that was Tex-Mex cuisine. Being from rural central Pennsylvania we were clueless about Tex-Mex – there was no place to get it – and had no idea what it could possibly consist of. Polish, German and Italian food, no problem, we knew what that was. Tex-Mex? Who knew? But by then we had assimilated to the beach culture and become fans of eating raw oysters on crackers with horseradish and a splash of hot sauce, so how bad could Tex-Mex be?

Turns out this place served something called "fajitas." They brought out a sizzling, personal-sized cast-iron skillet with grilled beef, peppers and onions (don't touch, it's hot!), gave you a container of small steamed tortillas, and a supply of cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and salsa. You took a tortilla, loaded on some beef and veggies, topped it with the extras, rolled it together, and bingo – fajita!

It took about three minutes to transform from uncultured swine to prophets. Therein started our life-long loving relationship with Tex-Mex. Also, for what it's worth, I was a good two decades ahead of that most-interesting man in the world character. But that clear stuff? Please. Who could possibly look at an agave plant and think, "you know, I bet I could drink that."

Over the years we spent many dinnertimes there and as they opened locations it became more and more convenient. Then we and all our DINK friends lost our "NK's" – some of us traded "D's" for "S's" as well – and eating out occurred less and less frequently.

Then we discovered they had take-out!

So we were able to indoctrinate our daughter into the world of fajitas even when it wasn't convenient to take the time for a seated meal. When we moved north to Bucks County there was a location a little over a mile from our house so we were in luck. Then our son was born, and although he didn't pick up on the trend in his early years, he has come over with a vengeance as he hit his teens.

When we returned to Happy Valley, although a location was here, takeout was a little complicated, and now, the genesis of our food affair no longer exists.

Are we sad? Hardly. There are currently four, count 'em, FOUR, fast-food non-ding-dong chain restaurants in town to get your Tex-Mex jones filled. And we have tried them all. Several times. Some more than several.

However, in a little less than a month our daughter will be going back to the land of Mickey to attend college – returning to her Tex-Mex roots as it were. In honor of that, I'm abdicating my journalistic duties and giving her the rest of this column to provide her expert opinions on these fast-food Tex-Mex chain eateries in Happy Valley.

From Miss J:

All of the Tex-Mex joints in town have different things going for them. California Tortilla has the best queso. Moe's gives you free chips with every order, and Chipotle has the best rice I've ever tasted. I'm not quite sure what Qdoba's individual bonus is, but it has a slightly different flavor, and sometimes it's just what I'm in the mood for.

California Tortilla. They definitely have by far the best queso. The first time I had a tough time ordering there, because it's set up differently than the rest. They have a bunch of premade menu options, which is either madness or brilliance (it's remarkable how often those two traits coincide). You give your full order to the employee manning the register, not by walking down the line and perusing all the possible toppings and add-ons you may want. This meant that when I walked over after ordering and saw all the ingredients they had, I discovered I had missed a few things I would have liked. The food was good, but if it's your first time check out the items in the prep line before ordering so you know all the options. Oh, and if hot sauce is your thing, this is the place to go.

Qdoba. Qdoba and Moe's are a toss-up to me. I like them both, so it just kind of depends on my mood and if I really want to drive downtown (and if it's during the school year, if I want to deal with the crowds). I think the food at Qdoba is yummy, and it's fresh, but the particularly special feature about it in my mind is the slightly different flavor.

Moe's. The one thing that really makes Moe's for me is that you get chips and salsa with every order. Although, if I took into account the health factor involved with providing chips to everyone and therefore promoting the obesity epidemic in America, I may have had to knock Moe's for that. But I'm not, so, yay Moe's!

Chipotle. For me, I think Chipotle has the best ingredients. The chicken is the best, the rice is divine, and you get a huge helping of guacamole (yes, I know it's a $1.80 extra, just give it to me already). I also like that they make a point to promote the fact that their food does not contain GMOs. And the hint of lime on their chips? Perfection. They may not have the fancy menu options of California Tortilla, or give me their chips for free with every meal, but it's Chipotle. And you can always trust a Chipotle to be Chipotle.

We enjoy them all and hope you will too!

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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