Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

You wanna go where people know, people are all the same, you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got; taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away?

- “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” (Cheers theme song) written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Whether the song pops into your head, you faintly hear the echo of a rounding cheer calling “Norm” somewhere off in the not-so-distant past, or the reference goes flying over your head like esoteric humor occasionally does, the lyrics ring true.  It’s a good sign of any establishment for them to acknowledge and welcome regular customers; not just remembering a name, but remembering the person. 

When I think of a place that for me, IS that place, it is Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant, in Oregon City.  Mazatlan has been the home to many celebrations over the years, from prom night, to birthdays and anniversaries, to even honoring a lost loved one with a now traditional “Duck Fart”.  For me, it’s a home away from home that always can be relied upon to provide a good meal, a strong drink, and a friendly atmosphere.  

When I walk in, and a smiling employee shows me to a comfortable seat and delivers a bowl of warm, freshly made tortilla chips, homemade salsa, refried beans and menu with a wide variety of dining choices. For those not in the know, appetizers range between $5 and $11, and include choices like nachos, taquitos, flautas and Mexican pizza. Entrees range between $7 and $16 and include Mazatlan specials, soups, fajitas, burritos, chimichangas, tostadas, and salads. You can even find a delightful selection of seafood here.

It isn’t long before one or both of the owners, brothers Isidro and Vidal Sanchez, come my way with a grin, a hand shake, and a quick witted comment that remind you that it isn’t just your name that they remember.  They’re social and happy to take a moment to chat about everything from the weather, how school is going, a mutual love of pets, the high quality of their food, and boasting about the past, present, and future accomplishments of their adored L.A. Lakers.

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
After a drink has been consumed and the menu once again perused, it’s time to order.  Occasionally, I step out of my usual comfort zone of the very reasonably priced happy hour menu, which includes many of your typical happy hour menu cast members, along with a few taco and burrito values that will knock your socks off. Their entrees are tantalizing, the list featuring a number of obviously popular specials, one of which became a quick favorite of mine, the Carne Asada.

Every time I order it, I am a happy camper as I sit salivating and twiddling my thumbs in anticipation.  A huge platter arrives, crushing your notion of what a portion size should be, adorned with a beautifully cooked skirt steak, which according to their menu is “broiled in a special way” creating a savory feast of flavors that I have yet to find an accurate comparison to.  Accompanying the steak are healthy servings of rice, cheesy refried beans, a helping of guacamole, and pico de gallo (also known as salsa fresco; a fresh, uncooked salsa which like so many things on their menu, is made in house). Topping the mouthwatering presentation, the pièce de résistance, are always a few green onions, grilled whole, and a jalapeno pepper adorned with a light kiss of char.

My mom, a frequent dining companion of mine, tends to relish in Mazatlan’s briny offerings of the sea with a seafood soup.  She too percolates with giddiness as she watches the waitress nearing with her banquet in a bowl.  Served in a massive margarita glass, with a side dish of crackers to join the community swim, it is a divine cross-section of aquatic wildlife soaking in tomato based bisque.  A happy giggle often passes her lips as that glass is placed before her in presentation and she lifts her spoon for that first taste, savoring of the sapidity of it all.

I dig in with vigor and am usually quite happily surprised. Not only are the flavors oozing of that notorious umami sensation, but I ask for medium-rare, and I receive medium-rare; a good sign of any chef, let alone any restaurant.  Even the rice is a pleasant surprise, a golden brown, properly seasoned and a prime balance between too wet and too dry.

Grunts and murmurs ensue, telling of a meal too precious to interrupt with inconsequential words.  A bare plate or a full gullet is the only relief in sight, and race worth running until all you have left is the sucking of the last bit of flavor from your fingertips and a snifter glass of ice cubes sitting lonely beside your plate.

Photo by Anna Axelson, May 2011
Speaking of an empty glass, a happy companion to the cuisine concocted within the Mazatlan walls is its beverages.  Home to a full bar, with a specialty niche consisting of a vast collection of tequilas (as you should expect from any good Mexican restaurant), bartenders are always happy to make you the cocktail of your choice or one of the many featured daily specials. 

However, something to keep in mind if you want a drink made “the right way” ask for Isidro (a self proclamation, of course) because he’ll always treat you right and serve something that is certainly worth paying for even to the extent of stocking a slightly obscure spirit like Blue Tarantula tequila, just because a single patron (my mother, to be exact) desires it, or in my case, when I order a well whiskey, I typically receive the liquid jewel that is Jim Beam at no increased cost.

The owners and staff have done a inspired job creating a warm environment while serving good food at a fair price.  They frequently visit tables of regulars and newcomers alike, and lightly socialize while never loitering to the point of intrusion, ensuring everyone is satisfied with their meals and is never in want or need of a single thing. 

When I asked, Isidro proudly admitted that 90 to 95 percent of the food is prepared on site, with hopes and aspirations of gaining on those last few percent in the future including taking over production of the coveted tortillas.  The time and effort put into it, reflects in the quality of the food, service, and smiles you find once passing through those doors.  Something that, as rumor has it, can’t be found at the chain’s other locations though I can’t speak from personal experience.

All of this is proof positive that if you treat your customers’ right, they’ll come back.  Also, if those customers come back and you don’t just treat them right, you treat them special, they’ll spread the word just as I have here and just as you may do if you give them a chance.  I am constantly looking for a reason to go there, to take new people there, and to try and disprove the reputation that the other branches of this chain have attached to the Mazatlan name.  Let this be known: if I ever start a restaurant some day, I will take my first leads from Isidro and Vidal Sanchez, because they are obviously doing something right in the great wide realm that is customer service.  Good food makes it worth going; good people make it worth coming back.

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