I thought I’d never hear anyone say those three little words to me in Costa Rica. But on Saturday afternoon, at last, someone did.
“Welcome. To. Moe’s”
Everyone who enters Moe’s Southwest Grill in the United States receives the trademark salutation from the restaurant’s employees. But when we learned a Moe’s opened in Costa Rica, we weren’t sure what to expect. Photographer Lindsay Fendt and I approached the first Costa Rican Moe’s with trepidation.
Would they “welcome” us into the store at all? Maybe they would say, “bienvenidos a Moe’s.” Or maybe there would be silence. And if Moe’s in Costa Rica failed to duplicate its best-known characteristic, would that mean the restaurant’s top-notch burritos, quesadillas, tacos, fajitas and salads also would be second rate?
Burrito Bowls: $7.80
Salads (served in a tortilla shell): $7.80-$9
Once we walked through the doors, our fears subsided. “Welcome to Moe’s,” they shouted in English. It felt like hearing a favorite song on the radio after missing it for so many years.
The greeting has also helped to usher authentic Tex-Mex into Costa Rica. That’s somewhat oxymoronic, since Tex-Mex is essentially bastardized Mexican food, but it tastes delicious. The rapidly expanding fast-casual chain opened in the new Plaza Tempo (a short walk from the Multiplaza) in Escazú, west of San José and south of the U.S. border. It’s the first Moe’s in Central America.
When I arrived in Costa Rica, in April of 2010, I began a search for one of my favorite foods, the Tex-Mex burrito. A delicacy stuffed to the point of near-bursting with meat, beans, rice, sour cream and guacamole and a couple pieces of lettuce. But every burrito place I came upon in San José served flaccid, featherweight imitators with only minimal ingredients. Beans, cheese and some recently defrosted chicken.
I found a couple decent burrito places that had set up shop in beach towns such as La Libertad, El Salvador or San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. But in San José, my burrito expedition ended after several months. The Costa Rican burrito was a myth, in the vein of El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth.
Then, this summer an announcement came that Moe’s Southwest Grill would expand to Costa Rica, with deigns to open in August. The restaurant faced several months of delays, as projects tend to do here, before opening on Nov. 10.
We tend to criticize the expansion of U.S. chains into Costa Rica. And do we really need another McDonald’s, KFC or Subway here? Probably not. But if the centralized production and quality control of a major U.S. franchise is what’s necessary to get a decent burrito into San José, then I’ll give it a shot.
Moe’s also plays on some nostalgia for me. Other Tex-Mex chains can top Moe’s in certain facets like better quality meat (Chipotle) or tastier nachos and taco salads (Qdoba), but in college, Moe’s served as a town hall for my friends and me. At the University of Florida, where many of my high school friends went, and where I often visited, the first place we often ate at when I showed up was the downtown Moe’s.
There my friends explained the trick to getting the best deal a college student could afford: Order the Moo Moo Mr. Cow off the kid’s menu (this wasn’t allowed at Moe’s locations outside of Gainesville. Believe me, we had tried): a small burrito, a drink and an oven-baked cookie for under $5. Then we’d gorge ourselves on the meal and talk about school, Gator football and whatever else was going on in our lives. Before leaving, we’d ask for a free refill of our drinks and chips. The chips we’d sometimes hoard for house parties later that night.
One friend of mine, who’s halfway to his Ph. D, once remarked the only non-science job he ever wanted was at a Moe’s. He also once won an eating contest at Moe’s that gave him free burritos for a year (one per week) that he shared with the rest of our group. Moe’s was one of those places that meant something because it seemed to be there for us. It didn’t hurt that they made damn good burritos, too.
That put more pressure on Costa Rica’s own Moe’s Southwest Grill endeavor. Costa Ricans might have a tough time differentiating a burrito from an enchilada or a chimichanga (a deep-fried burrito). How could they pull this off?
The ambience at the Moe’s in Escazú is appropriately homogenized with its U.S counterparts: the walls are coated in bright oranges, yellows and greens, and typical music includes selections from Buddy Holly, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. “Welcome to Moe’s” hollers abound.
The menu appears chockfull of the usual pop culture non-sequiturs, although some receive cute Spanish translations. For example, out of the two menu items containing Seinfeld references, the vegetarian burrito – known as the Art Vandelay – has kept its original nomenclature, while the Close Talker was rebranded the “Susurrador” (the whisperer). The special Moe’s cheese dipping sauce, known in the United States as “queso,” had to be rechristened Moe’s Queso Famoso. That’s because when you ask for a cup of “queso” in Costa Rica, you’re simply asking for a cup of cheese, which is neither special nor famous.
I ordered a Homewrecker (amusingly retitled the “Rompehogares”), while Lindsay ordered a Chicken Club quesadilla. Moe’s orders come together via assembly-line production. You choose your meal with the store’s “Head Burrito Roller” and then go down the line selecting ingredients. Options include rice, black beans or pinto beans, braised pork, chicken, or steak, lettuce and onions and pico de gallo sauce. Guacamole and Moe’s Queso Famoso cost extra. Fortunately, the Homewrecker, the biggest and most expensive burrito on the menu ($9.80) comes with guac. The Chicken Club includes bacon, shredded cheese, tomato and a chipotle sauce.
All Moe’s orders also come with a side of crispy tortilla chips. Patrons also can choose at a self-serve salsa bar from six sauces for chip dipping needs. (The salsas also feature more fun pop culture nonsense. There’s the spicy “Hard Rock ‘N Roll Sauce.” Or opt for the milder Usual Suspects-inspired “Who is Kaiser Salsa?”)
None of the sides and wordplay matter much, however, if the main course tastes like the rest of Costa Rica’s limp burrito replications. I pull back one side of the burrito’s tinfoil encasing, which keeps the contents from spilling out, and I take a bite. Melty, warm and well-seasoned. One or two pieces of steak seemed to have too much fat (too chewy), but the meal avoided the pitfalls of a poorly constructed burrito. The rice wasn’t overcooked and hard, nor did the item fall apart upon first mouthful.
After two and a half years, I’ve eaten a real burrito in Costa Rica. It was spectacular. Lindsay’s Chicken Club also satisfied: gooey and mouthwatering but with each ingredient layered evenly in the quesadilla. On the way out the door, I thanked the Head Burrito Roller. From the first words we heard when we walked into the restaurant to our last bite, our expectations had been fulfilled.
Moe’s. Welcome to Costa Rica.