Nacho Mama's is Mexican in the crowd-pleasing way that Juan's Flying Burrito and Lucy's Retired Surfer's Bar are Mexican: Many words on the menu derive from the Mexican cocina, but few recipes do. The style is more freewheeling Southwestern-inspired American, which the space communicates with surfaces awash in deep reds, golds, browns and oranges -- the idealization of an Arizona sunset. Wooden cactus cut-outs line a ledge bordering the open kitchen, and bigger ones form the sides of a window booth. The oasis here is a horseshoe bar around which customers gather at all hours to drink the tart, smooth house margaritas from glasses with green, cactus-shaped stems.
The restaurant's gloss stops at the design level. This is the third restaurant for Nacho Mama's owners, who also run the original Nacho Mama's and Mother Clucker's, both buzzing CBD lunch spots. It's their first venture into full-service, day-and-night dining, however, and their novice shows. Service ranges from deadbeat to dead-on, sometimes from the same person. Acquiring silverware from a waitress one lunchtime took more patience than checking out at the A&P across the street. This is how she greeted me two days later: "You want a menu or something?" Then, midway through our second meal together, she unexpectedly turned perky and efficient, the Elle Woods of the service industry.
There's visual evidence of good intent from the kitchen: White plates emerge dusted with burnt-orange spice powder, and cooks continuously wipe down surfaces and stir pans of beans between orders. Sadly, the evidence is more often seen than tasted. Menu staples such as the highly seasoned Spanish rice and potentially lovely lime-cilantro rice are fine one day, dry and flyaway the next. Firm pinto beans are sometimes smoky and other times bitter, the way chopped garlic tastes when it sits around. (Soupy black beans are plainer but more reliable.) The thin, crisp, almost nutty corn tortilla chips would taste super dipped into a pure, creamy, lime-edged guacamole rather than the house guacamole cut with pico de gallo ingredients, which results in too much tang and, sometimes, that bitter garlic flavor. (The pico de gallo, on its good days, serves the chips well.)
I ate all over the menu: An overstuffed steak burrito, soft-shell tacos of shredded pork and fried catfish, a shrimp quesadilla, chile verde enchiladas, chile verde stew, chicken-tortilla soup, and black bean flautas all exhibited potential. They also suffered from one or more of the following missteps: skimpy portions of the key ingredient, tongue-challenging salt content, not enough cheese, cold tortillas, dripping grease. Flan and sweet pear chimichangas possessed an unmistakable and inexplicable plasticky flavor.
The least successful dishes came from the ambitious, more expensive dinner entree menu. Pork tenderloin was so dry it leeched every droplet of moisture from my tongue; a skirt steak had turned so long ago you could smell its sourness before tasting it. This kitchen doesn't seem ready for ambitious food.
Only a rummy would expect precision cooking from a casual eatery called Nacho Mama's located in the soul of Uptown's partyingest strip. It is nevertheless perfectly valid to expect cooks to exercise their senses of sight, smell and taste, not to mention common sense. My friend sent her steak back (and received decent chicken fajitas in its stead), but I hardly thought to complain otherwise. After a couple such meals, you tend to look on the bright side -- at least the food isn't bland -- and order another margarita. Followed by the satisfying fudgy brownie sundae.
I have one friend who, so discouraged by the state of Mexican food in New Orleans in general, threw up her hands while discussing Nacho Mama's and suggested we all head for Texas. I'm always game for a Tex-Mex road trip, but I don't think our standards need to soar that high yet. Why not shoot for competently prepared food?
As a consumer advocate, even the most disgruntled critic must attempt to explain why other diners choose to spend their hard-earned cash at one restaurant over the hundreds of other options. I'm stumped. I cannot account for the crowds at Nacho Mama's, except to say that it's the kind of place where people -- especially youngish, sociable, Uptown-savvy, budget-conscious non-teetotalers -- just tend to end up.
The kitchen is likely to improve, as most young kitchens do, but at this point there are scant menu items I can recommend without a caveat. Unless you count the margaritas, which are quite good and, during happy hour, dirt-cheap.