This is the Place
Chile Verde Deserving of Being the Star — The Italian, Not So Much
Restaurant: Mark Anthony's MexItaly
I had driven past Mark Anthony's Italian Food several times, but was yet to stop. Then I was out in Herriman and saw that there was another location in a strip mall, so I decided the time was right. Then, as I'm walking up to the door, I realize that the sign says Mark Anthony's Mexican Food. What? Have I been misremembering the other location? Was the other location Mark Antony's? But, I was there, so I figured that I would get lunch anyway.
The restaurant's décor is nice, with modest tables and food-related art on the walls that does not scream out Mexican food in the traditional sense, unless a couple paintings of peppers mean Mexican. (The style of the art said "Italian" to me, but who am I to judge?) The thing that really struck me, though, was their sign telling me where to go to place my order. It's a painted I-beam section. Just gave me a charge. There is a TV hanging in one corner of the room, but it was off, and no music playing overhead. But an older gentleman was at the counter before I could get there, smiling and greeting me enthusiastically.
I said, "I haven't been here before." He said, "Oh, great!" And promptly told me that the chile verde burrito is one of his personal favorites, and it is also very popular. He said that the chimichangas are good, and told me that they are just like a burrito, but fried. I think he was going to tell me more, but I saw that the chile verde was highlighted on the overhead menu board, so I went with that, and a soda. I paid and got my cup, and asked if there were any menus I could take home. He started to point at a table holding a Specials board, then stopped, and said, "I have to make some more. I'm so very sorry." It was really striking how much effort he was making to be pleasant and helpful.
At the beverage bar, I saw that they had lemonade, so I went with that, and picked up napkins, and a plastic fork and knife. When I sat down, I was becoming curious what my food would be plated on, expecting Styrofoam, since it's a Mexican fast-food restaurant. I was wrong. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
There were a couple tables needing to be wiped down, but that was taken care of pretty quickly. (Right after I was served, as a matter of fact.)
As I waited for my food, another gentleman came out, younger than the first, and he asked me if I wanted the TV on. I told him that would be great. So he took out the remote and turned it on, then walked over to hand me the remote. He pointed to the Guide button and said, "Choose whatever you want." Again, I was surprised at the level of service. And, when I looked up, it was satellite TV! But, before I did anything, I asked him if they had other locations. He said, "Just the Italian one." And he pointed. I said, "Oh! I thought I remembered it being Italian." He said, "Yeah, Italian there, Mexican here," and made a hand gesture like he was saying, "Whatever works." Then he wished me a good lunch and left. Right after that, my food was brought out to my table.
First words out of my mouth: "A real plate. And the chile verde's not green!"
So much for it being fast food ….
First words out of my mouth after first bite: "Wow. That's really good."
The chile verde had layers of flavor, and a respectable level of heat. I've had hotter, but not often, and the ones that packed more heat tended to sacrifice flavor in favor of that additional spice. Even better, it was not filled with beans and just smothered. There were no beans in it. The burrito was all chile verde. Awesome!
The rice was very light, with nice flavors that complemented the beans and the chile verde sauce. The beans themselves were very good. Usually, I don't touch the beans at Mexican restaurants. They're usually a tasteless spoonful of blended beans. But these had a good number of whole beans, giving it a texture that was much more palatable but, much more importantly, you could taste the pork fat. In the words of Emeril, "Pork fat rules!"
In the end, I realized that I had completely cleaned my plate. After the burrito was gone, the sauce was just so good that I used the rice and the beans to mop up what was left. I just didn't want to leave any behind.
Last words out of my mouth: "Mark Anthony's Mexican is definitely worth a short drive out to Herriman."
For my second visit, I was definitely going to hit Mark Anthony's Italian Food. But, when I got there, it had morphed into Salsa Leedos. I was so disappointed. Nothing against Salsa Leedos, but I was hoping to have Italian food that matched the experience I had with the Mexican. Ah, well. So I continued out into Herriman to see if the Mexican place had survived, or if Mark Anthony had hung up his apron altogether. I made it to the strip mall and saw it was still there, so I parked and walked up to the front. The window still had Mexican Food on the glass, but I kept glancing up at the overhead signage, because something was different, I just didn't know what. Then it struck me: it said Mark Anthony's MexItaly Food. So the Italian place hadn't gone away, it had melded with the Mexican one. Cool! So I would be getting my Italian fix after all! That exuberance didn't last real long, though.
Inside, the place had been remodeled, creating a walled off entryway with a counter, and the back walkup bar had been turned into a solid wall, and the place had more tables. So they had changed it from fast food-cum-good food to a sitdown restaurant. Fair enough. So I waited to be seated. There was no sign telling me to seat myself, and I had heard the chime from the door declaring my presence, but no one came out. I waited and glanced at my phone: 11:35 a.m. I was a little early for lunch. But I looked at the door, which said they opened at 10 a.m., then glanced in through the archway, and spotted a couple tables needed bussed, so I wasn't the first one on the scene. And I continued to wait. Hmn ....
After another couple minutes, I plucked out my own menu and started into the dining room to seat myself. About halfway in, a gentleman came out, dressed completely in black, and said, "One?" I looked behind me to see if anyone else was there, but found no one. So I turned back around and said, "Yes." He then started looking around the room, seeming at a loss as to where to put me, although there was no one else seated. Maybe he was concerned about seating me near the two unbussed tables, then sat me at a table for four and asked me what I wanted to drink. I glanced at the menu to see what they carried, and he did a partial limbo backbend to see around the partial wall blocking view of the beverage bar, and started reading off the options. Finally, I said, "Lemonade."
As I sat down, I looked around, because there were more tables there than on my previous visit. In looking around, they were mismatched, half with a black plastic bumper, the others just wood edged. It appeared that the tables from both restaurants were in that one location ... and there were no table settings. The TV on the wall was off and there was no music playing overhead. It was like eating in a morgue. But I was there, so I looked at the menu: Italian food on the inside, Mexican on the outside. It had Appetizers, Signature Pastas, Sandwiches and Featured Entrees. So I thought, since I was going Italian, to go with the Spaghetti with Meatballs. About that time, he brought my lemonade (in a Styrofoam cup with a lid), and I asked him about the soup. He said it was Potato with Beef. I thought that sounded interesting and went with it. He left without a word. This was a stark contrast to the obvious efforts made by the older gentleman the first time I ate there.
He came out with my soup pretty quickly, a small porcelain cup on a saucer with a packet of saltines and a soup spoon. It reminded me of a Chinese restaurant ... except that it was the first sight of silverware. Then I caught a whiff of the soup and regained my focus.
First words out of my mouth: "That smells really good."
There were plenty of potatoes, cut into thumbnail-sized pieces, in a very light broth, with diced onions and bits of diced meat (not ground, mind you). I gave it a bigger sniff and couldn't help but feel that it was going to be good. I was not disappointed.
First words out of my mouth after first bite: "Wow. That is really good. Is that a little fennel?"
There were layers of flavor, that was both light and satisfying. The potatoes, although well cooked, had not made the broth overly starchy. And that undercurrent that I could only think was fennel was a very nice surprise. There was also a little bit of heat to it, my mouth warming ever so slightly the more I ate. I finished the soup and even finished the broth like sipping a cup of coffee, very pleased. What a great way to start my meal!
Where the soup arrived immediately, the spaghetti took longer. For one thing, my waiter came out to ask me if I wanted marinara sauce or meat sauce. I chose the meat sauce. And resumed waiting. When he finally came out with a nice, heavy plate that was steaming away, I was excited again to see what else was in store for me. The plate was filled with spaghetti noodles, mounded with a meat sauce that had plenty of meat with bits of diced tomato clearly visible. Moreover, the sauce was more brown than red, like the Greek spaghetti sauce you might see at a restaurant like the Other Place. And the whole thing was sprinkled with dried herbs, either parsley or — one can hope! — oregano. The three meatballs were good sized, a little smaller than a tennis ball. But the pasta visible around the edges was plain, so I started having misgivings.
I took my first bite of the spaghetti and was ... disappointed. It was underseasoned. I can't think of another time I had Italian food and thought, "It needs salt." Worse, the dry herb on the top was parsley. It's Italian food, why not use oregano if already using something dried? Or, even better, why not a fresh herb, like basil? It wasn't bad, but just a little salt would've gone a long way. Also, if they had cooked the pasta partway in a good salty water (Anne Burrell says it should be like seawater), then finished cooking it in the sauce, it might have been perfect. When I cut into the first meatball, however, I was disappointed again. It was hard and pretty dry. The flavor had a slight gaminess that made me wonder if it had lamb in the mix, or if it was just seasoned with sage, but I couldn't ask, because my waiter had vanished off the face of the seat. The strange thing, though, was that the third meatball was much softer and decidedly more moist. So was it a different batch? It was today's meatball and the other two were yesterday's? Again, it was impossible to know, since I was a castaway in the dining room. (Those other tables didn't even get bussed while I was there.)
The bread on the side was in a twist, baked on a wooden stick in a bread cutting board. The flavor was good, with a more subtle garlic than some of the places doing similar bread.
In the end, I still finished my plate, and even dipped the bread in the last of the sauce. And a clean plate is a good thing, as if that life-is-good feeling that accompanies a full stomach.
Last words out of my mouth: "Mark Anthony's Mexican, yes. Italian ... not so much."
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