August 22, 2014 Updated: August 23, 2014 at 9:47 am
A multipage menu should be considered a warning sign. Too many available options often mean few will be exceptional.
Such is the case at Carlos Miguel's Mexican Bar & Grill Briargate (one of seven in the region), which boasts five large pages of Southwestern food items, featuring more than a dozen different categories from appetizers to tacos, from enchiladas to house specialties, from fajitas to ... the list goes on and on.
Don't get me wrong, Carlos Miguel's does some things well: the beans, for example. They're creamy and earthy from the mashed, then refried, pinto beans. Another high point is the warm tortilla chips served with pico de gallo and a refried bean dip that are served immediately. The salsa, while full of tomato chunks, diced onions, jalapeño and bits of cilantro, is a rendition that satisfies but doesn't overpower the taste buds with too much heat. The bean dip is very similar to the beans served as a side to most entrées.
With so many choices, I asked our server what she liked, and she gave a corporate response: everything. She said she had a favorite chicken dish, a favorite seafood dish and a favorite beef dish. Somewhat begrudgingly, she eventually admitted that chicken mole ($13.25) is on her list. She didn't reveal other preferred picks.
Even with the server's underwhelming endorsement, I ordered the mole because if I see it's available, I have to have it. I am drawn to the complexity of flavors that comes from blending multiple spices and ingredients (sometimes between 20 and 30, depending on the source). The menu describes this dish as "grilled chicken breast seasoned with Mexico's favorite blend of assorted seeds, peanuts, chilies, raisins and chocolate." The trouble with this description is that every region in Mexico has its own version of mole - often more than one, in fact. The chicken, cut in strips, and mushrooms - an unusual addition - were covered with the dark coffee-colored mole. There was only a trace of nuttiness and too much smokiness. A good mole should include these elements, but they should be balanced for a rich, dense sauce with hints of chili, chocolate, nuts and its many other ingredients. It wasn't the best mole I've ever had, but neither was it the worse.
I was more impressed with the Chimichanga Ranchera ($12.75), packed with shredded beef, onions and green pepper. The burrito was deep fried crispy to a golden color (thus becoming a chimi). The stuffed fried tortilla required a knife and fork (and good upper body strength) to cut through, but the slow-cooked beef was tender and rich. A dab of guacamole on a small mound of shredded lettuce was hardly more than a garnish.
We ordered the Ensenada Fish Tacos ($14.25), but when the meals arrived we were served Enchiladas Rancheras ($12.75). The latter were sent back to the kitchen and the right food was brought to the table without much of a wait. Even though I didn't taste them, I wish we had kept the enchiladas. The tacos - soft corn tortillas filled with sautéed tilapia, mushrooms (what's with the 'shrooms here?), shredded lettuce and pico de gallo - were too fishy for my liking. The salsa helped hide some of that. Black beans and cilantro lime rice are the sides for the tacos. The beans were nondescript and, thanks to the abundant cilantro, the rice was a refreshing contrast to the fish.
The crispy flautas ($8.95), a generous appetizer of flour tortillas filled with shredded chicken and rolled before being deep fried, work as an entrée if you're not interested in rice and beans. Only one side of the flautas was that perfect golden; the other was doughy. They're served with sour cream and guacamole and shredded cheese, which is a plus because they were needed to elevate the dish past just fine.
Sopapillas ($5) were a nice way to end the meal. Four puffy heart-shaped pastries dusted with cinnamon sugar were light and airy. They're served with whipped cream, and there's honey to drip into them, which is the way I like to eat them.
Carlos Miguel's six other locations - along the Front Range and one in Frisco - all serve the same menu items.