38 Hillside Ave., Williston Park
SERVICE: Friendly, but scattered; noise level can make communication even more challenging
AMBIENCE: Loud and, on mariachi nights (Thursday and Friday), louder
ESSENTIALS: Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till midnight. No reservations. Street parking. A very tight squeeze for a wheelchair.
Williston Park’s Ivy Cottage has proved a tough act to follow. Since 2012, when the quaint Hillside Avenue restaurant closed after a 14-year run, the address has been a revolving door. Neither Madison’s on Hillside (New American bistro), Xarello (high-end Mediterranean fusion) nor Taverna 38 (casual Greek) lasted more than a year.
I predict a much longer run for Margarita’s Cafe, the sixth link in an L.I. chain that offers a big, crowd-pleasing menu of moderately priced Mexican fare. The food at this address has not improved — in fact, it leaves a lot to be desired — but the festive vibe and copious, discounted drinks seem to be what the neighborhood has been waiting for. At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday — when many Long Island dining rooms are echo chambers — there was a 45-minute wait for a table. (The restaurant does not take reservations.)
Tuesday night is also $2.95 margarita night, and the drinks situation at Margarita’s Cafe appears to be a large part of its appeal. Willie Martinez, who owns five other Margarita’s Cafes on the Island, plus The Cuban in Garden City, said he stocks more than 100 tequilas. On Thursday nights, ladies get $5 martinis, and during happy hour (weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m.) cocktails, sangria and beer are half price at the bar.
Perhaps if I’d had a second glass of sangria I would be more forgiving, but for the most part, the food at Margarita’s Cafe reminded me of Mexican night at summer camp.
The single best thing we ate was the sopa Azteca, a rich soup with an agreeably coarse texture garnished with half an avocado and toasted strips of tortilla. (The blob of melted cheese lurking beneath the surface cheapened what was otherwise a refined dish.)
The first time we ordered guacamole, we got a paltry, watery serving, but the second time it was unctuous, balanced and plentiful. Too bad the house chips, garishly tinted to match the Mexican flag, were unsalted.
A fajita combo featured dry chicken and tasteless shrimp, but the marinated skirt steak, though overcooked, had a chewy appeal.
So much for bright spots. Featured on the La Familia appetizer platter were tough, toothless jalapeño poppers that had been stuffed with grainy, flat cheese; one-note taquitos that sang only “fried”; sloppily topped nachos that were burned around the edges; and wings dressed with what tasted like generic bottled barbecue sauce.
I’m an unabashed fan of enchiladas Suizas, an authentic Mexican dish whose lavish use of cream and cheese makes it a regular on American-Mexican menus, but Margarita Cafe’s version lacked any trace of tomatillo, cilantro or chilies; the shredded chicken was dry; the tortillas so permeable to sauce they appeared not to have been fried first. Still, this dish was better than the chicken mole poblano, irregular bits of chicken breast floating in a brown sauce that no lover of Mexican food would credit with the vaunted name “mole.” I ordered pollo Margarita on the assumption I could trust a dish named after the restaurant, but what turned up were insipid pieces of previously fried chicken covered in a gluey white sauce. (The dish initially got points for bone-in pieces, but they were summarily deducted when I realized one of the pieces was a back.)
Pork loin tacos evinced less mojo than a Nathan’s hot dog. I discerned no “saffron guajillo sofrito” in the paella, only bland rice, overcooked shrimp, rubbery scallops, desiccated lobster and sandy clams.
Margarita’s Cafe even challenged my long-held belief that there is no such thing as bad flan: This one was full of bubbles (not having been strained) and slightly curdled (having been overcooked). Churros — long, fluted batons of fried dough — turned out to be one lone churro, roughly cut into four segments, thereby exposing its interior of uncooked batter. Tres leches cake had been milk-soaked into pastiness.
I’m not knocking Margarita’s Cafe because the food bears very little resemblance to food you’d get in Mexico. Suburban American-Mexican cuisine has a proud (well, respectable) history, and reflexively turning my nose up at all those cheese-gooey dishes flanked by refried beans and pink rice would make as much sense as shunning clams casino, spaghetti and meatballs, and veal Parmesan because they do not exist in Italy.
My bottom line is that food should taste good. And by that standard, Margarita’s Cafe falls short.