The Woodlands Mall area offers several choices for your dining dollars – Romano’s Macaroni Grill, The Cheesecake Factory, and several other choices both inside and around The Woodlands Mall. Mi Cocina, a Mexican Restaurant, occupies the space formerly held by Rockfish Seafood directly next door to Fleming’s Steak House and Brio Italian in the mall courtyard area.
Mi Cocina operates under the M Crowd Restaurant Group, along with another 25 restaurants under three names – Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, and The Mercury. Offering a what we have found to be a blend of Mexican and Tex-Mex foods, Mi Cocina adds their own dining experience to a plethora of Tex-Mex Restaurants in The Woodlands. The Tortilla Soup $4.95 was filled with flavor and bits of chicken and vegetables and was very good.
Mi Cocina Mexican Restaurant is certainly not the only Mexican Restaurant in The Woodlands. There are nearly three dozen other dining choices serving enchiladas, tacos, and margaritas in The Woodlands, and the competition continues to grow. The list of competitors has the usual rise and fall – for example, El Bosque Mexican Restaurant outgrew the space recently held by Cantina de Tejas (a recent failure) in Shenandoah, which is now occupied by Casa Medina. El Bosque relocated to a larger space in the Portofino Shopping Center.
Why so many Tex-Mex Restaurants?
That’s a good question - Tex-Mex style food was popularized over a 100 years ago and remains strong today as it ever was. The first Mexican restaurant in Houston was the “Original Mexican Restaurant” at 807 Fannin, which was opened in 1907 by George Caldwell. We can surmise that spicy kick that comes with most of these dishes have become a staple in the diets of many Texans.
The Chips and Salsa
We were promptly seated and our cheerful waitress addressed us for beverages in no time at all. The thicker chips we had last time were still being served (fresh ones of course) offering a nice flavor and crispy texture. The salsa recipe hasn’t changed, mostly chopped tomato, water and jalapeño, including several seeds and plenty of brine making for a spicier, though oddly, less-than-flavorful salsa.
But even though the chips and salsa are undoubtedly fresh, both lack key elements that make any pre-meal noshing enjoyable. The chips aren’t warm, and certainly aren’t oily, making salting them an exercise in futility as the grains just bounce right off and collect in the bottom of the basket. And the salsa is both virtually tasteless and incredibly spicy at the same time. In other restaurants where one might be offered a “table salsa” and only if requested a hotter salsa, this one would easily qualify as the hotter. But without any depth or imagination to the preparation of the salsa – no roasted tomatoes or chilies, no cilantro, onions or other discernible seasonings – it becomes merely fire in a bowl.
Deducting the time for the waitress to create the order, and some time for it be sitting in the pickup window and for her to bring it out… pretty damn fast huh? Maybe a little too fast. The chicken wasn’t under-cooked, but it wasn’t really as hot you might expect to be after arriving so quickly. Maybe we should start carrying a quick-check thermometer with us when we go out on reviews…?
Considering that the chicken was covered in the cheese and cream mixture, it should have held a lot of heat right? Well, it wasn’t all that hot, in fact, it was only slightly warm really. A manager-type happened by and enquired if we were enjoying the meal; interesting how a camera can get their attention. I had only a couple bites of the chicken at this point, so I told him it wasn’t very hot and actually a little tough as well. Leo insisted on bringing me a replacement which was brought out in about four minutes. How the heck can they cook the chicken up that fast? I asked him if the chicken was pre-cooked and he tried to assure me that it was cooked fresh to order each time. The temperature of the replacement chicken was easily no hotter than the original plate so I have to wonder if this information was totally accurate.
Aside from that, they flavor of the chicken was easily washed away by the cheese sauce, the rice was average as was the guacamole. This plate was decidedly more along the lines of what I have come to know as “authentic Mexican food” rather than Tex-Mex; and with a name like “Ernie’s” I was expecting some Tex-Mex flavor.
Tacos Mi Tierra
She Said – After being completely under-whelmed with my last meal at Mi Cocina, I thought the only way to give them a fighting chance was to order something they considered to be a specialty. Seems to me if a restaurant is going to crown an item special, it better be because they know how to do it right. After asking the opinion of our server, Z (Short for Zeniada), I opted for the Tacos Mi Tierra ($14.95). I don’t know what it was I was expecting, but the “Street-style Tacos” I was served was not it. No, actually, I do know what I was expecting. I was expecting something along the lines of what the menu described: “Soft corn tortillas topped with diced, grilled Fajita beef, serranos and onions, served with guacamole and pico de gallo.” I suspected the onions and peppers would be diced fresh, and that the running together of the “grilled Fajita beef, serranos and onions” was a grammatical error. I also thought that while it wasn’t mentioned on the menu, I might spy some fresh cilantro in the tacos. These assumptions were made based the tacos I’ve experienced coming from taco trucks. You know, street-style.
What I got was three thick, chewy, oil-soaked tortillas, with warm-ish diced bits of chewy peppered beef, with a spoonful or perhaps two of soft, oily bits of onions and peppers. Thankfully, his meal was accompanied by some warm tortillas, so I was able to snag a couple from him to transfer my taco fillings into. Unfortunately, those tortillas were every bit as chewy – and more than just a little bit dry around the edges – as the tortillas lining my plate and preventing the oil slick from reaching my rice. I was able to chew my way through one and a half tacos, their only salvation being the pepper used to season the beef did give them a nice aftertaste.
I do have to compliment the rice that came with our meals. It reminds me very much of the ‘Spanish rice’ my mother used to make. Back when my part-Spanish/part-Mayan-Mexican father was alive and she wanted to make him some ‘home-cookin’ like his mama made. Of course, mom was as European-blend as us white-girls come; mostly Irish and Dutch. Spanish rice wasn’t exactly in her blood. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it (I did! I do, mom! Promise!!) so much as to point out that this rice, like everything else we ate, wasn’t really Tex-Mex, either.
It’s been quite a while since we have eaten at Mi Cocina The Woodlands and considering they managed to keep the doors open for more than six months, we figured it was time try them once more. The interior of Mi Cocina is upscale, very nice and similar to that of Patio’s Latin Cuisine in Magnolia. But that’s where the similarities end. You may have noticed the billboard just the road from Chuy’s which proudly states “Mi Cocina – Authentic Tex-Mex” (or something to that effect). Our conversation with a manager Leonardo did little to settle the confusion on whether Mi Cocina is supposed to be Tex-Mex or Authentic Mexican fare. Our palates, however, were quite clear. Mi Cocina is neither. Instead, it feels like the owners aren’t quite sure which direction they want to go, resulting in a menu that feels more like a perpetual “prueba cocina” (test kitchen).
Think we got it wrong? Or did we hit the nail on the head? Let us know in the comments below. And remember, you don’t have to take our word for it – give them a try for yourself and decide!
Read our first review of Mi Cocina Mexican Restaurant