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At Moe’s, Southwest fare and a welcome

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“Welcome to Moe’s!”

There’s yet another Mexican chain restaurant in the newly revitalized Stateway Plaza/Towne Center quadrangle just off Arsenal Street.

It took a minute to understand what the staff was shouting as customers entered the front door of Moe’s Southwest Grill.

It also took a few minutes to digest and understand the menu that took up an entire wall at the entry point.

Nachos, tacos, quesadillas and burritos. We got that. But what was a Julia Gulia, a Wrong Doug, a Billy Barou or a Joey Bag of Donuts?

They named all of their choices after TV or movie characters! We didn’t understand the reasoning. I would have used names like the Frito Bandito, the Roberto Clemente, the Desi Arnaz or the Cameron Diaz.

Drawing names for menu items from nostalgic pop culture characters makes about as much sense as the classic rock tunes blaring from the ceiling speakers overhead.

But then again, the place doesn’t look like a typical Mexican restaurant either. No adobe hut ambience. No leftover paint colors on the walls. No sombreros hanging around.

It’s just another American food chain selling Americanized Mexican food — with a few gimmicks on the side.

But let’s get to the food.

It’s been a long time since I grabbed a plastic tray and pushed it along a cafeteria line. That’s the first step. Then you tell one of the assembly line workers what you want, like if you order a quesadilla you say, “I’ll take a John Coctostan” ($7.29).

Whoever that is.

They warm a flour tortilla, put it on a square of aluminum foil, mark some kind of code on the foil and start scooping ingredients on the tortilla from the various compartments.

Then you tell them which “fresh, free ingredients” to add: rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes, peppers, olives, cilantro, sour cream, pico de gallo and more.

Certain things just continue down the line; other choices, like our Coctostan quesadilla, get browned and warmed in a two-sided George Forman-looking grill.

Along the way to the checkout point, you can grab a cookie ($1) or a brownie ($2.50). The register person asks if you care for a beverage (iced tea, bottled water or Coke products, $1.89 for a medium, $2.29 large), you get an empty paper cup, you pay up and head to the beverage center.

Chips come automatically with your meal, a generous amount of thinner-than-supermarket quality, served in a plastic basket lined with deli paper. Just past the touch-screen soda computer/dispenser that offers 150 choices (oh, to be a kid again) there’s the salsa bar with four kinds of complimentary salsas.

It was the same assembly line drill for our Funk Meister tacos ($8.97), our Homewrecker burrito ($7.79) and our Wrong Doug stack ($7.99).

What the heck is a stack? A Moe’s original, we guessed: “Beans, shredded cheese, pico de gallo and queso stacked between two crunchy corn shells wrapped in a grilled tortilla.”

We had ours built with marinated steak and added black olives, lettuce, bacon and grilled bell peppers.

The ingredients tasted fine, but we didn’t get that promised “crunch” and couldn’t taste much of their “famous” queso (Mexican cheese).

“Welcome to Moe’s!” There goes that annoying Red Bull-fueled voice again. Most of the staff were mumbling under their breath, but this one guy was really into it.

For tacos, you can order flour tortillas or crispy corn tortillas. We went with crispy and got one chicken, one pork and one steak (you save a dollar by ordering three).

These were good. Each starts with beans, cheese, pico and lettuce, then we customized each with a variety of their 22 “fresh, free” ingredients.

The shell is the real tipping point to having a good or bad taco. These were very good; fairly large, not too thick and not too thin, able to hold the inside ingredients with integrity.

A burrito is a kind of benchmark for us at a Mexican eatery. Moe’s was right up there, a massive one standard with lettuce, sour cream and guacamole. We further fattened it up with pulled pork, cheddar, black beans, tomatoes and corn salsa.

It was super sloppy and full of flavor, just the way we like it. The pulled pork was the clear winner of the meats ordered; an almost melt-in-your-mouth consistency that barbecue-ers pursue.

“Welcome to Moes!” Now we joined in the incessant holler, greeting newcomers from our table near the front door.

I’m not for burn-your-face-off-hot salsa, but one of my lunch guests was. Anything that has a warning on how hot it is usually finds its way to his plate. He grabbed the hottest salsa offered as well as the “Who is Keyser” salsa.

The super-hot salsa wasn’t super hot, but did have a nice kick. The “Keyser” salsa was our favorite, as well as a green tomatillo salsa (whose name we can’t recall).

All of the lunches on our table looked and tasted fine, but with so many ingredients in common, they all tasted pretty much the same. Guacamole made a definite difference, as did the various salsas.

A very filing lunch for four at Moe’s cost $43.21. No servers, so no tips necessary. But you do have to take your trays and your garbage to the garbage can area.

The “Welcome to Moe’s” is cute, but gets old in a hurry. The classic rock music is OK, but someone needs to figure out why the sound coming from the ceiling speakers is so distorted.

You’re probably interested in how Moe’s Southwest Grill compares to Chipotle Grill, visible directly across the Stateway parking lot. (We visited Chipotle in June. See the review at www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20120916/COL01/709169976.) Here are our thoughts:

■ Both are cafeteria-style eateries where the menu items you choose are assembled to order.

■ Both tout all-natural, grain-fed, hormone-free meats, maybe Chipotle a little more so than Moe’s.

■ Both have the same high-tech Coke soda computer/dispenser.

■ Moe’s has much more seating for comfortable in-house dining.

■ Chips and salsa (four varieties) are free at Moe’s.

■ Chipotle’s menu is more straightforward and easier to understand. No “Ruprict” and “Super Kingpin” to confuse the first-time or one-time customer.

All in all, we enjoyed our experience at Moe’s. It’s a nice, casual restaurant that blends a fast-food experience with a slight “notch above” standard fast-food dining.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.

Moe’s Southwest Grill

1222 Arsenal St. (Stateway Plaza)

Watertown, N.Y.

681-6046

www.moes.com

A national fast-food chain a notch above the standard fast food dining experience.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week

PROS: Fresh ingredients, menu items made to order, lots of seating room, complimentary salsa and chips

CONS: Menu difficult to understand, sound system loud and distorted, staff hollering “Welcome to Moe’s!” gets annoying after a while.

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