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3 Hermanos' offers plenty of sugar, not much spice

Each time a new Mexican restaurant appears, the debate begins: Is it true Mexican, or Tex-Mex?

Almost always, the answer falls toward the latter, with people scoffing at what they see as "Mexican" misrepresentation. Yes, the word is as polluted and ambiguous as another culinary favorite, "natural."

But I'm over it. Though I, too, favor culinary authenticity when available, if something tastes good to you at a good price, eat it. If you're such a purist that finding combo plates and thick yellow cheese sends you into a tirade, then make your border run, amigo. Hasta luego.

Briefly, I did think I'd find a true taste of Mexico at five-month-old 3 Hermanos Mexican Restaurant downtown. Its menu cover tells of owner Maria Bautista learning to cook alongside family in Veracruz.

Veracruz is a Gulf port city and cultural crossroads, full of Spanish- and Afro-Cuban-inspired seafood plates. What an interesting menu from which to sample if it were 3 Hermanos' menu.

It's not. 3 Hermanos is Tex-Mex through and through.

From the large, all-day menu, we started with the simple refried pinto bean and cheese dip ($3.95). Warm and simple, it passed the time, though we found it tastier with the complimentary table salsa dumped on top.

We next opted for shredded chicken crispy tacos with guacamole garnish ($7.95) as well as camarones rellenos ($11.95), jumbo shrimp wrapped in melted cheddar and fried bacon, next to an avocado half and pico de gallo. Both plates came with shredded lettuce, more refried beans and Mexican rice sporting sad, but otherwise tasty, half-imploded peas.

The tacos themselves brought a pleasant masa (cornmeal dough) flavor similar to that of tamales, while the shrimp were entirely overpowered by the bacon. I'll seldom say this, but less swine just a thin strip, maybe could yield a more gourmet flavor here. The key to fixing the dessert flan ($2.95), on the other hand, is finding a new recipe: At present, it tastes like vanilla pudding straight from the cup.

Back in for the serviceable lunch buffet ($7.25), I couldn't help but think of a college campus taco bar. From two hot tables, you can pluck pre-made chicken or cheese quesadillas and crispy or soft chile rellenos, or build your own taco, burrito, tostada or taco salad with ground or shredded beef, pork in tomatillo sauce, pulled chicken, whole or refried beans, Mexican rice and basic garnishments.

When fresh from the kitchen, the quesadillas are tasty, and I imagine the rellenos might be, too. But the cheese-rich ones I sampled were either too hard or too spongy and oily.

My co-diners and I were satisfied with the variations of tacos and tostadas we created, with no particular meat standing above the pack. One suggestion: Hit anything you build with the bottle of dark red sauce on the buffet's end. I'm guessing it's made with sun-dried chili ristras due to its smoky, earthy and delicious flavor.

If you're a shameless sweet-tooth, wash it all down with a Mexican fruit soda ($2), which tastes even more sugary than its 48 grams of sugar might lead you to expect. Then you won't need the dry chocolate cake squares that rival the flan's mediocrity.

To its credit, 3 Hermanos' friendly atmosphere, enlivened by boisterous Mexican tunes, colorful Aztec prints over clean booths and yummy, bright, slushy fruit margaritas ($6), needs no work.

matthew@csindy.com

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