Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Salsas, sister restaurant to the local El Azteca mini-chain, is your garden-variety, large-scale, high-volume Tex-Mex restaurant. You know, the kind that litters the Riverwalk in San Antonio, where tourists are swept in by the busload and fed – with ruthless efficiency – massive quantities of generic “Mexican” combo meals, chips y salsa and oversized frozen “margaritas” of every imaginable neon color … none of which have ever seen the light of day south of Texas’ border.
And that’s not entirely a bad thing.
This sort of riff on Mexican food is almost sacred for its comfort-food qualities to anyone who has spent any time in Texas. After all, how else to spend a warm afternoon than downing margaritas and demolishing baskets of salty chips and cilantro-flecked salsa? And there’s no better stress-reliever than a giant burrito awash in melted yellow “cheese” garnished with lard-infused refried beans served by waitstaff who rotely deliver the obligatory “be careful, the plate’s hot” warning.
Tucked away in the elusive (as in, hard to find, because there’s no good reason for it being there) shopping block or two of Newport News’ City Center (which is neither a city nor the center of anything), Salsas easily checks off the Tex-Mex bare minimums. Bottomless free chips and salsa; cheap margaritas; Latino-“ish” décor – that is, lots of sols, lots of lunas; a dizzying array of combo meals; and actual refried beans (this last one may seem a little arbitrary, but you’d be surprised how few Washington, D.C., Mexican restaurants can differentiate between a bowl of pintos and no-kidding refritos). Beyond the basics, however, Salsas’ delivery gets a little muddled in the translation.
First things first, however. Salsas’ staff was eminently professional and polite. Uniformly dressed, the staff will seat, serve and clean up after your party with no prodding whatsoever. They will also resist the temptation to vacuum the dining room during the middle of your meal (a regrettable – yet frequent – occurrence in Hampton Roads restaurants) and aren’t in any particular rush to extricate you from your seat. They tend to be a tight-lipped bunch, though. Can we get [insert favorite color here] margaritas? Is there a top-shelf version? Can I substitute a reposado tequila? Is there a house specialty? Who knows. The choices offered are: regular or jumbo, salt or no salt.
So, a regular with salt it is. And I should probably point out that a “regular” could easily be called “fishbowl.” The jumbo? Try “cauldron.” So, yeah, you don’t need too many of these. And at $5.75 for the regular, we’re deep in cheap date territory. As for the taste? Well, we’re clearly talking a prepackaged mix here. On the other hand, the mix isn’t overly intrusive and is fairly palatable. Ultimately, not bad at all.
The chips and salsa – a veritable litmus test for (Tex)Mexican restaurants – warrant a mixed review. The chips are of the thick yellow-corn variety (most assuredly from a bag), but the salsa flavors are bright, fresh and spicy. Tragically, the salsa was accompanied by Hampton Roads’ ubiquitous “white sauce” which is just, well, wrong.
But I digress.
Salsas’ menu offers pages and pages of options. Many are standard fare, some flirt with interior Mexican origins, and others are, ah, a little odd. My personal favorite (in terms of amusement) was the fried rice with chicken breast and queso dip. It’s listed under the fajita section. ¿Que?
The vegetarian section (and I give them huge kudos for even going the effort to highlight vegetarian options) strangely includes fish dishes. I don’t know, maybe some cultures see fish as a vegetable. Whatever.
Menu oddities aside, the food is definitely tasty enough, but a bit more “truth in advertising” is warranted. The enchiladas del puerto is billed as seafood enchiladas with “crab and scallops.” The “crab” is really the fake “krab” of California roll and cheap salad bar provenance. Granted, anyone ordering an entree with “crab” that costs less than $8 should expect some sleight of hand in the ingredient arena, but when you live a mile from the Chesapeake Bay, shouldn’t you be able to expect that “crab” on a menu really means it came from a crustacean? You know, like the blue crabs folks pull up from every bridge in town?
The enchiladas rojas, however, came as billed, stuffed with moist marinated shredded beef. The sauce exploded with chili flavor in all the ways you would expect it to. Very tasty. The sides, however, fell flat. The slick dark green dollop that was billed as guacamole looked (and tasted) like it had never crossed paths with an actual avocado. The Spanish rice (which I have often referred to as the most useless side dish in the world) showed up in its typical dry, lifeless state. Salsas’ version arrived with three peas and one kernel of corn. Whee. I’d recommend asking for refried beans in lieu of the offending starch.
If you don’t OD on the chips and actually make it to dessert, Salsas has a number of decent offerings – some more authentic than others. The churros (essentially long, crispy cookies) come pre-coated in chocolate (traditionally, you dunk them in your hot chocolate). The infamous “Choco Taco” also makes an appearance on the menu (it’s a prepackaged ice cream waffle-cone novelty crafted in the shape of a taco and irritatingly priced over the three-dollar mark).
In the end, Salsas is competent, tasty and inexpensive. Its attraction lies in its consistency and predictability – two requirements for comfort food – and less so in the creativity in the kitchen (if there is any). The restaurant isn’t pushing toward any new horizons, but if you’re going to eat here, you probably aren’t trying to be surprised or challenged in the first place.
Address: 704 Mariners Row, Suite 110, Newport News
Phone: (757) 596-6080