If all New Englanders do Mexican food like they do in Gloucester, I am in deep, deep trouble. Granted, I am a recent transplant to Massachusetts after over a decade in California, where Mexican food is an art form. However, I am originally from South Carolina, and even their Mexican food is more authentic than this garbage was, which is not a good thing. But I digress…
The First Impression is Everything
Walking up to the Edgewater Cafe in Gloucester, Massachusetts, you are struck by the fact that it is in what appears to be a dingy, miniature “room” next to the local pool hall. You immediately begin rationalizing your impressions to yourself by thinking “Maybe it is bigger than it looks, and cleaner inside than out”. As soon as you walk in the door you see that, sadly, you are wrong. It is as small and dingy inside as out. With a resigned sigh, you enter, further rationalizing with “Well, some of the best places I’ve ever eaten are the small, dark, out of the way, slightly dingy hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. Maybe this is one of those”. So, thus bolstered, you cross the threshold into a deranged version of what someone thinks is Mexican decor.
You look around the room, noting that the owners have somehow managed to cram too many tables into a 20 foot by 30 foot room. There is not enough room for a person to walk between the tables without contorting themselves into weird positions and apologizing profusely for stepping on the other patrons’ various body parts and belongings as you pass by. Add to this cramped condition the fact that the Edgewater was a BYOB establishment for many years and you had various bags and coolers of booze sitting in the aisle to the mix, making navigation all the more challenging. Thank goodness they made arrangements with the pool hall recently for full beverage services since we ate there, but I digress. Bring your compass.
As your hostess leads you to your small table, you are still gamely thinking that maybe this overload of cute and small will lead to fabulous food that will make it all worthwhile, so you muddle through to your spot. You are seated at one of the many two person tables, able to both converse with and bump elbows with the tables on either side. Luckily, everyone is friendly in this small town, so you will at least come out of your evening with a few new friends. Once seated and settled in with whatever alcohol you brought with you (we were some of the last patrons to visit while it was still BYOB), you can take in the rest of your surroundings.
The first thing that came to mind when looking around the room was the word plastic. Everything in the room either was plastic, or looked plastic, from the bottle openers on the walls to the plants, table flowers and pictures. While many restaurants use plastic plants and such things, they generally are not quite as obvious about it. In addition to the preponderance of plastic, the colors used in the room were very bland, not at all what is usually associated with a Mexican restaurant. The overall feel of the decor was that the decorator just didn’t have his heart in it, or had never been to another Mexican restaurant or seen anything made in Mexico, where abundance of color is a beautiful expression of the self.
After about 10 minutes, a waitress (not the one assigned to our section, as it turned out) came to take a drink order from me (though I normally indulge in whiskey or wine with dinner, I had decided to abstain for some reason that night. My ‘honey’ had purchased a sixer of Corona next door to go with his anticipated Mexican dinner). The drink itself then did not appear for another 5 or 6 minutes. Meanwhile, our actual waitress came by and asked us to “please be patient with her” as she had two other tables. Now, I have bartended and waited table for a number of years to supplement my income as a graphic designer and writer, and to pay for college before that. In all the time I spent in the service industry, I would have to say allowing three tables in a section to overwhelm you means you should probably find another line of work. But perhaps I am mistaken on that supposition. Regardless, we did not see her at our table again until nearly 15 minutes later. At that time she only wanted to let us order an appetizer, planning to come back a third time for our main course order, but we waylaid her for the entire recitation, as we were beginning to get both hungry and cranky at this point.
While we had been navigating the apparently complex process of getting hydrated and nourished, we had perused the menu. On the surface, it seemed to be pretty close to the usual choices offered in any Mexican restaurant, with one exception – no descriptions of the menu items. The reason for this became apparent later, but let me not get sidetracked just yet. Looking over the plastic-coated menu, there were a few appetizer selections presented first. These included standards for most restaurants such as Nachos, Armadillo Eggs, Skins, and the like. Loving fairly spicy fare, and figuring Jalapeno Poppers (Armadillo Eggs) would be hard to prepare incorrectly, we chose the Armadillo Eggs. The choices for the main course were varied, from Chimichanga, Burrito and Taco selections to more complicated things like Rellenos, Tamales, and Mole dishes. We ordered the Chicken Chimichanga (for him) and the Chile Rellenos (for me). There were a few deserts offered, but we decided to see how full we were before we asked for anything like Fried Ice Cream (Sopapillas and Flan were blatantly absent from the desert choices on the menu) or the house mango specialty.
Back to the Experience
The first unwelcome surprise, and the largest clue that the Mexican food here was only Mexican in someone’s wildest dreams, were the Armadillo Eggs (Jalapeno Poppers). Wherever the cook learned to cook, they neglected to mention a few key points, such as a) take the stems and skin off of peppers, b) wash them free of dirt first and c) scrape the seeds out of stuffed peppers for flavor preservation and to prevent five alarm mouth fires. Yes, the stems were on the gritty, seed-filled peppers. In addition to that, they were breaded in a seafood-type batter in stead of the usual crumb-based breading, stuffed with Mozarella (what the heck was that all about?), and coated in a filmy sauce that tasted suspiciously like white gravy from down South. Don’t get me wrong, white gravy is a good thing, just not in Mexican food! So, the poppers were a bust, and we ended up only eating one each out of the six total.
Well, we had still decided to reserve judgement at this point, hoping the remainder of the meal would turn out well. Sadly, this was not to be. The main course arrived about 20 minutes after the appetizer. The drink refill requested when ordering dinner in the first place did not. My honey looked at his Chimichanga askance for a minute before quietly asking me if Chimichangas always had white gravy when he’d had them before, and adding that maybe he just hadn’t noticed that feature before (in a hopeful tone of voice). Meanwhile, I was looking at my Rellenos with some interest, trying to remember if the cheese used in Rellenos was normally that vibrant in color. We bravely decided to give the food a chance and proceded to dig in.
My honey took a bit of his Chimichange and got a very thoughtful look on his face, pausing for a long moment before continuing to eat. This was not encouraging to me, nor did it help matters to look at my plate. To say the presentation of our meals was lacking in appeal would be generous. The Chimichanga, moderately sized, was absolutely swamped with white gravy, which had a disturbing skin on it that reflected the light from the candle on the table in a very disconcerting way. The Rellenoes were absolutely buried under a thick layer of viscuous, shiny, vibrantly colored cheese.
I took my first bite, regardless of trepidations, and very nearly spit it out on the lap of the nice lady seated next to me. I am certain the cheese was meant to be cheddar (why cheddar on Mexican food I do not know, cheddar is not usually a cheese associated with good Mexican cuisine), but it tasted quite a bit more like Velveeta (now I’m not saying it was Velveeta, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, but I have my suspicions). There was very little tomato sauce or salsa (either of which is acceptable in Chile Rellenos), no spices at all (not even salt, and so far the whole meal was missing any hint of cilantro and other traditional Mexican spices), and the same seafood-type breading as found on the Armadillo Eggs. In addition to this, the chilis had not been peeled or seeded (both of which are essential to a great Chili Relleno dish), thus causing them to taste like shoe leather while simultaneously frying your tastebuds into oblivion. After the first bite, I tried one more, just in case, before pushing the plate away in disgust.
While I was trying to get the waitress to come back to our table some time prior to Christmas, my honey was very thoughtfully and methodically working his way through his Chimichanga. Since he wasn’t gagging, I asked for one of the same to replace my unfortunate Relleno dinner when I did finally get a waitress’ attention. I was floored when it finally arrived. Their version of the Chimichanga consists of chicken, fried in the manner of chicken fried steak, wrapped in a burrito with no other ingredients and dropped in a deep fryer, then coated in white gravy (basically, a chicken fried steak burrito). As with the Rellenos, there was no spice or other seasoning to be found anywhere on this dish.
When the waitress finally came back to the table (the service here, at least on this night, was excruciatingly slow and thoughtless.), we asked for the check. It took another 15 minutes for the check to arrive. We paid and left as fast as possible, as the slowness of the experience had caused us to waste an entire evening in a cramped, hot, dirty, loud, overcrowded restaurant working on food that was not even mediocre in quality. As we were leaving, our waitress stopped us to find out why I had sent my dinner back, exactly. When I told her it simply was not prepared as an authentic Mexican dish, first, and second, tasted bad to me, she fussed quietly at me for doubting the authenticity of the cook’s menu!
The Edgewater Cafe offers overpriced food under the misnomer of Mexican cuisine. You can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $40 for two people to have dinner at this restaurant. If you do decide to risk a trip, you should wear cool, comfortable clothing as the space is small and right next to the kitchen, not to mention unairconditioned and extremely crowded. If you are claustrophobic, this is not the place for you. If you are at all sensitive to hot foods, do not order any dish that has Chilis as it’s centerpiece – the fact that they neglect to scrape the seeds out of the chilis for their patrons adds many degrees of heat to the dishes that include them. They do not take reservations at his time, and for some reason are often crowded (probably because the town is small and the restaurants are few). They do not take credit cards. The very recent addition of a small deck did not help their srvice issues or their interior space problems. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, this is not a restaurant that caters to your needs. As a total experience, I would rate the Edgewater Cafe with less than one star if I could, and I can not recommend it to anyone I actually like as a person.