As soon as we walked in, the waiter yapped at us. Apparently the table by the door was the only one available. The table was high and looked like it was designed for a party of six, not two, as we were. "What about one of those ones down there?" I tentatively enquired of those further into the restaurant. "All taken" he barked. "Even that one?" I pointed to one of the many vacant tables. "Okay, you can have that one," he bristled and rushed us towards it. Easy tiger, the menu says "Hola, Welcome to Chihuahua Mexicana Cocina Y Barra," but we weren't feeling it.
This is the re-vamped Marvel Grill in Takapuna and when they'd opened under that guise, midway through 2010, I enjoyed being able to heap praise on their efforts in this very column. Now it's been turned into a Mexican kitchen and bar by the same owners, seasoned operators Wendy Sutherland and Alisdair Gribben.
Well, I never enjoy this job when I have to report that a newbie has opened but isn't up to scratch. In this instance, I'm even more grumpy because, with this experienced pair at the helm, the re-fit and re-launch, should have been a no-brainer. Latching on to the current trend of modern, snappy Mexican cuisine and fulfilling a long-time wish of Wendy's to open a Mexican restaurant, they apparently turned it around in a mere six days. Except that they haven't. The menu declares "we are currently in our opening phase and the menu is reducido".
Are you serious? Are the prices also reducido while you get through this phase? No. We spent a total of $190.50 between the two of us, mostly in an attempt to uncover some dishes that I could truly rave about, because the half-hearted transformation of the space just wasn't enough.
The festiveness, clutter and vivaciousness that you might expect to find is sorely missing. If you covered one eye and look left towards the bar, at a pinch, you might think the refit is complete - there are low tables adorned with those fabulously gaudy plastic table coverings and metal chairs in bright cheerful colours, but the rest is still showing every sign of its predecessor.
Chihuahua had been open for about 10 days by the time we visited, the chefs were still wearing Marvel Grill logo'd uniforms, the cute metal pans, though they had been relevant for the old grill menu, have no relationship to Mexican food, the sign on the toilet door was the original and the wait staff had no idea how to describe the sangrita to us.
Why is all this so important? Because I'm afraid coloured plastic table coverings over dark wooden bar leaners does not a Mexican restaurant make. Because the owners will know that first impressions count in the Auckland dining scene, so you better get it sorted from the get-go. Because it shows a lack of care for the customer experience that they'd opened without being fully ready. Yes, I know that now it's me who's doing the yapping, but the carelessness has made me cross.
Was the food any good? Some dishes, like two of the salsas we ordered (pico de gallo & verde), the crab tostaditas and grilled corn were outstanding and some were unspectacular, like the prawn taco and the pulled pork taco, with its too-sweet pineapple, the quesadilla and the desserts. The blackened fish in the taco tasted dusty and had an unpleasantly strong whiff of fish about it. We left it half-eaten but no-one inquired why.
Aside from the corn, none of the dishes impressed us with their presentation and all of it was relatively pricey which I wouldn't be mentioning if it had been uniformly fantastic - it only becomes an issue when the food doesn't hit the mark. Priority appears to have been given to the drinks menu instead, with a comprehensive list of tequilas and cocktails on offer, but the staff need more training, as they do with the food, to be able to adequately explain them.
There are plenty of new restaurants in Auckland that have been well-thought out before opening their doors. By comparison, Chihuahua feels disappointingly jump-on-the-band-wagon rushed. And that's it. You could say this review is a tad reducido. Perhaps I'll write a more complete account when they move to their next phase.
From the menu: Salsas - guacamole tomatillo $9.50, pico de gallo $6, verde $7.50; tostaditas - crab $14, tuna $16; tacos - blackened fish $8.50, pulled pork $8.50, prawn $8.50, skirt steak $8.50; quesadilla - grilled capsicum $16, polenta jalapeno $10.50; elote (grilled corn) $7, cheesecake $12, chilli chocolate pudding $12
Drinks: Fully licensed
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