Pressed to explain why I showed up one Wednesday night during normal business hours to find Serrano's Mexican Bar & Grill dark and locked, chef Rafael Garcia, speaking from the company's first location in Woodland Park, tersely responds: "We are four people operating both restaurants." Plus, he adds, they have an upcoming wedding to cook for.
I completely believe that the company's overworked and understaffed. Manitou Springs' newest eatery, owned by Jose Serrano, is not able to replace the venerable Dutch Kitchen, which closed in 2012 after 53 years in business. It's not even able to guarantee that someone will answer the phone, as you have, like, a 1-in-5 chance of reaching a human. It's not able to serve the $3.65 margaritas advertised on its lunch menu, as its liquor license is still pending approval, and it apparently has no strategy for retaining customers interested in alcohol, as we watched two parties walk in and walk back out one night with nary a word said by staff.
The small dining room is almost there, if a little cold and smelling like dish water. The floor is beautifully redone, and the offsetting black and red tablecloths are nice, though both are a bit at odds with the lingering wood paneling and torn booths. Sometimes there's music, sometimes awkward silence, and if you ask for the bathroom, you're told to turn left at the mop bucket. (True story.)
Possibly expect a delay when you enter, like when we stood there for a few minutes at lunch, only to have a man in a polo emerge from the kitchen wearing ear buds who, after acknowledging our existence with a nod, dropped us off at a table. You can imagine how well they noticed us when we left.
There's a good spiced salsa to start, but the chips, like the tortillas, don't exactly sparkle with freshness. Asked how often each is made, Garcia would only say, "As we need it." A dried-out Spanish rice had vegetable squares so depressingly mushy that it takes no imagination to picture them sitting in a warmer all day.
In a genre like this, you'd better have something the rest — José Muldoon's, 3 Margaritas, Carlos Miguel's (where Serrano worked) — do not. Garcia says the difference at Serrano's "is we are a tiny restaurant, so our food is fresh. We make small portions to bring better food."
This is actually sometimes true. The pollo à la crema ($8.99) may have proffered that rice, but its grilled chicken in a rich, soft cream sauce was more than pleasant. Same with the gritty pollo en mole ($12.95), one of the few I've had that actually delivered on the promise of complex chocolate and spice flavors. The pale pink ceviche ($9.25) wasn't bad either, though one-note with minced shrimp.
And then there's the Santa Fe Burrito ($12.25), an expensive bit of flour tortilla with a chunky pork-tomatillo sauce and filled with black beans, onions, tomatoes and cheese. All of it ran together into a generally agreeable, warmed-over gut bomb. The pork carnitas ($12.95) are OK, if all you want is really soft, unseasoned pork; but the Bistec Chihuahua ($13.95) — purportedly containing filet mignon, and really offering a mushy cut of bland, pulpous beef covered with garlic and potatoes — is a waste of good cow.
There's not much else I can say. There's little here you can't get at the Loop or elsewhere, and there's very little reason, thus far, to even try.