I have sometimes wondered whether some long-ago East Lansing politician promised to provide “a burrito on every corner.” Because, even after the recent closing of Pancheros on Grand River, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants around here.
Last week, Captain Carnivore and I decided to check out Los Tres Amigos. The first thing I noticed was that, with its own parking and a large interior, LTA would be convenient for large gatherings like office parties, birthday parties or family events. When we went, the restaurant was fairly full for a weeknight, especially since most MSU students had finished finals and headed home for a while, and the patrons seemed to be a cross-section of East Lansing: four young women eating and drinking margaritas from the full bar, an older couple in a booth, a family with young children, and a group of men dressed in business clothes drinking and keeping half an eye on the wall-mounted TVs.
It’s a casual place, with the carved and brightly-painted furniture, Corona banners, and king-sized menu that characterize many area Mexican spots. It’s fairly dark inside, and although there is music, it was low enough to allow a private conversation without involving diners at surrounding tables.
After reading the extensive menu, we ordered guacamole to go with the crisp, warm tortilla chips delivered shortly after we sat down. For serious food, The Captain chose “Fajitas Amigos,” described as “marinated strips of beef, chicken and shrimp with sautéed onions, bell peppers & tomatoes.” I flirted with the idea of ordering one of the intriguing shrimp dishes (it’s hard for me to resist something described as “HOT! HOT!”), but I chose a combination plate so I could sample a variety of things. My choice was #15, “Chalupa, Chile Relleno and Taco,” and I opted to pay an extra dollar for ground beef instead of strips of beef.
The guacamole was simple, smooth, mellow, and fresh, containing (I think) nothing more than avocado, tomato, onion, maybe a little garlic, salt and lemon juice. I happen to like my guacamole chunky with both cilantro and jalapeno, but lots of people don’t – and if you like it hotter, you can do as Captain Carnivore did and choose one of the many kinds of hot sauce on the table to add a little heat.
When the entrees came, The Captain’s fajitas arrived smelling delicious, and they tasted as good as they smelled. The peppers and onions were still crisp, the beef and chicken were tender and flavorful, and the beef, chicken and shrimp all retained their own flavors and textures while playing nicely together. He was also brought warm flour tortillas in foil (which were refilled quickly and pleasantly), and a side plate of refried beans, Mexican rice, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo. I stole a bite of his refried beans because they weren’t part of my meal, and I found them as simply “right” as the guacamole – nothing fancy, but a basic component of a standard Mexican restaurant meal executed really nicely.
My taco was crisp and flavorful, as was the chalupa, and I was pleased with both. Real chalupas bear no resemblance to the Taco Bell creature of the same name, which is basically a taco with a fried shell made of corn dough instead of a tortilla. Authentic chalupas are more like small nests or vessels (a “chalupa” is a kind of boat) of fried masa filled with meat, cheese and lettuce.
I was less thrilled with my chile relleno. Its flavor was good, although a little heavy on processed cheese (I prefer a natural Monterey Jack), but the texture was . . . an issue. Chiles rellenos are traditionally served with a dollop of salsa to balance and cut the greasy, cheesiness of a chile pepper stuffed with cheese which is then battered and fried. In this case, there was so much moisture on and around the chile, mostly from its own red salsa, that the batter was soggy and heavy rather than crisp. This may have been nothing more than a fault in plating; a little less salsa or salsa on the side, and a little less batter might better preserve the fresh-from-the-frying pan crunch.
Overall, we found Los Tres Amigos to be a good spot for a very reasonably-priced, Americanized Mexican meal. There are several options on the menu for diners who don’t like Mexican food (there’s one in every crowd, especially a crowd with children) and there’s a whole menu section devoted to vegetarian offerings.
If you don’t eat gluten there are a number of options, but for vegans, there isn’t a whole lot of choice. There are two salads on the menu, there’s guacamole and chips, and there are potato enchiladas that can likely be ordered without cheese, as well as a vegetarian fajita (although it’s always wise to ask whether the cooking surface is also used for meat and seafood).
Los Tres Amigos is located at 1227 East Grand River Avenue, a quarter-mile west of Hagadorn Road, in East Lansing.