Fish Out of Water

By Nancy Powell

Posted February 28, 2013 in Eats

Fish tacos are the bomb at Morongo Casino’s newest Tex-Mex restaurant.

It’s a blustery Friday in Cabazon, but inside the Morongo Casino, busloads of Chinese have parked their asses on bar stools, inhaling a numbing anesthetic of stale cigarette smoke, their gazes drawn to a dizzying lullaby of slots. That is, until grumbling guts call and they file into the many eateries that ring the periphery of the gambling hall, one of which is Tacos & Tequila, a Vegas mainstay that has made a westward migration to the great land of Native American casinos.

It is solely to escape the din that I duck into this vividly-lit, spaciously-composed dining room with hyper-bass thump-ups of ’80s alt and pop rock (boom-boom-boom goes the bass-driven rendition of “Dancing with Myself” and “Raisin in the Sun”) amid a large screen displays golf tournaments and college basketball action. The hip and trendy restaurant that draws the youthful bar-hoppers in Vegas proper draws, instead, a mix of staid middle-agers and the slightly-less middle aged—which is to say, that the tequilas, like a choke on the smoke, are the main draws of the former, whereas something more substantive, like the tacos, must be in play to attract the latter. Indeed, one whole page of the menu pays homage the “Tequilas” portion, while the only other page lists a well-rounded array of Tex-Mex favorites: tacos, burritos, fajitas, enchiladas and a few choice grill items.

I start with the Veggie Quesadilla ($11) and Roasted Corn On-the-Cob ($5). The quesadilla offers an interesting mix of cheesy and sweetness coming from the mix of sautéed zucchini, yellow squash, onions, corn and espozote. Even though chile poblano rojas are part of the mix, the flavors appear muted by the overwhelming layers of melted Oaxacan cheese. A dollop of sour salsa or something could give it some textural contrast. While I’m not crazy about this first course, I am crazy about the seemingly incompatible roasted corn with cotija cheese. Its outer, cheesy cheese gives the corn a surprisingly savory nuttiness that balances the out sweetness of the kernels and the smokiness from the char.

I select the Beer-Battered Fish Tacos ($13) as my entrée. Chef Saul Ortiz’s dish rivals any fish taco joint in the IE. He fills his street-sized tacos with bulging filets of tilapia, topping it off with tangy chipotle slaw, juicy pico de gallo and creamy dressing and subtle hints of spice bursting with gobs of flavor. Morongo might be leagues away from an oceanic aquarium, but the dish tastes like just-caught fish. Chef Saul’s Alambre Tacos would make any vaquero happy. It’s a meat-eater’s dream of crunchy, smoky bacon mixed with grilled steak, a sprinkle of Oaxaca cheese and a simple garnish of cilantro and onions, a bacon-enhanced version of carnitas.

My dining partner opts for Pan-Roasted Mahi Mahi in a briny tomato, olive and caper bath. While I’m not a big fan of tapenades, I find that the brininess works well with the fish and gives this bright and savory dish context. The stuffed Anaheim pepper offers contrasting textures in crunchiness and creaminess.

We finish with a Cinnamon-Dusted Empanada oozing banana puree with a scoop of coconut ice cream. Subtle hints of alcohol pepper warm, banana puree and the palate-cleansing coconut ice cream provides a soothing contrast. This dessert has a good mix of textures and makes for a satisfying ender.

While the food does hit the right marks on most occasions, it is really the service that stands out; the waitresses pamper and accommodate, but this can be an endearing virtue when it comes to grumpy patrons sore and tired from a losing round at the table. A bite of dessert and tequila should help quell the pain of loss.

Tacos & Tequila, 49500 Seminole Dr., Cabazon, (951) 849-3080; AE, MC, V. Lunch for two, $62.

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