Within the past year, two Mexican restaurants with the same name and owner have opened in the greater Frederick area.
Cinco de Mayo Mexican Restaurant and Bar, a regional chain with locations from Martinsburg, West Virginia, to Columbia, Maryland, opened a Middletown location last year and an Urbana location in April.
The home page of their website loudly boasts in big capital letters “authentic Mexican food.” Scroll down and webpage visitors are given a more elaborate explanation.
“At Cinco de Mayo, tradition is part of everything that we do ... we use the traditions our parents set out for us as children,” the website reads. “Whether we are cooking at home for our family and friends or in the restaurants for our customers we have a passion for traditional, home-cooked Mexican cuisine.”
The mission to provide home-cooked Mexican food is a commendable one. In a country where Mexican cuisine might be more common than anything else, Americans have gotten used to the tastes of our neighbor to the South — flavors such as the freshness of pico de gallo, the sweet-savory combination of al pastor tacos, and the salty-juiciness that comes from open-flame grilled meat used for everything from fajitas to taco bowls.
Those flavors are common and expected, but hardly found at Cinco de Mayo.
Elias Crispin, the manager of the Urbana location, said the Chicken Chipotle Bowl is the most popular item on the menu. Makes sense — bowls offer all the flavors of a good taco without the added carb of a tortilla.
At presentation, the chipotle chicken bowl looks like something one would order from a halal cart or restaurant. A pile of golden-brown chicken atop a variety of ingredients with a mustard yellow and white sauce drizzled across.
The white sauce is sour cream, the other is their chipotle cheese sauce — whatever that means. It tasted more like jarred queso than anything else.
The chicken was not cubes or strips but a combination of both and the lack of flavor is immediately recognizable. It tasted like there was only a sprinkling of salt and pepper on the chicken.
This lack of flavor, in theory, could be solved by mixing the chicken in with the rest of the bowl, but I found that with every bite, despite mixing thoroughly, I was missing that umami flavor, and no other ingredient — not the beans, the rice, or the weird cheese sauce — could provide that.
In fact, at both locations the chicken bowl seemed to be overpowered by the cheese sauce. That’s all I could taste with almost every bite and it ruined the dish.
At the Middletown location, my guest ordered the chicken tacos and it was just as disappointing. The tacos were piled high with meat, but again lacked flavor.
During a dinner visit to the Urbana location, the carne asada and “Fajitas Texacana,” which consist of grilled shrimp, chicken, steak and vegetables, were ordered.
The carne asada that came out to the table was appalling, to say the least. Two extremely thin steaks with two random scallions crossed atop it, with a side of rice, refried beans, pico, lettuce, sour cream, cheese, and tortillas.
Carne asada and fajitas are two separate things and the reasoning behind the ingredients to make a fajita was served was confusing.
Carne asada is one of the most traditional Mexican dishes and Cinco de Mayo even states that on their menu. Translated, “carne asada” means “grilled steak” and is usually cooked medium unless specified otherwise.
Cinco’s carne asada was well-done and was so thin it seemed impossible to cook it medium even if an attempt was made. Tough and rubbery, it tasted as if it had been pre-cooked and then warmed up when ordered, which would explain how the food was delivered to the table less than 10 minutes after the order was put in.
And just like the chicken, flavor was non-existent. Even calling it carne asada is a stretch as there was not one grill mark on the steaks. Turning it into a fajita didn’t help.
My guest’s actual fajitas — same deal. Coming out sizzling was the most exciting thing about it.
When the plates were collected the waiter noticed the second steak of “carne asada” had not been touched. He asked why. It was overdone I said. A few minutes later, what seemed to be a manager appeared and apologized that the waitress who had originally taken down the order had not asked how the meat should be cooked. We were then offered a discount on the check.
The discount was professional and courteous but could not make up for the cuisine that claims itself to be traditional Mexican.
But it can’t be all bad, right? The tableside guacamole, which is prepared right in front of you and customizable, was nice but a little heavy on the lime juice. The queso con carne was quite good. Thick, creamy, and cheesy with a nice touch of oil from whatever meat you choose — the options are beef or chorizo.
But funny enough, the best part of the meal was the chips and salsa served to every table once seated. The salsa is not too watery, not too spicy, and should be served with every single dish. In fact, on my second visit to the Urbana location, I ended up dousing my bowl with the salsa in order to make it slightly more appealing.
It seems that what Cinco de Mayo does best is providing a space for drinks and appetizers. The margaritas are as big as a human head and offer every variation possible, but it was disappointing to not see a classic lime margarita listed anywhere. I had to ask the waitress if they served a lime margarita and she told me they did. I then ordered one with salt on the rim, but the drink was delivered unsalted.
A lime margarita may be a classic, but it’s lazy to not list it on the menu and assume that customers will know it is available.
All in all, if you’re really craving Mexican food, I recommend driving past Cinco de Mayo’s doors and finding the closest Chipotle.
Katryna Perera is the restaurant critic for the Frederick News-Post. A long time “food enthusiast” she has taken cooking classes both domestically and internationally and is continuously following food trends and restaurant openings. She also briefly studied food reporting while attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.