Every evening, a part of the King’s Court buffet is transformed into a specialty à la carte restaurant (read, this is gonna cost you, but a lot less than the Veranda Grill). Over the previous four crossings we have reviewed most of these restaurants, and you can read them at our previous post Queen Mary 2. There were two new à la carte venues on this trip; Smokehouse “featuring classic American barbecued dishes” and Aztec “offering regional Mexican cuisine.” We did not think that the former would be possible (for starters you need a big-ass porkulator, tons of smoke, and lots of time, none of which was in evidence on the QM2), so we decided not to waste our taste buds. But regional Mexican had possibilities, or so we reasoned our way into a consensual culinary hallucination.
Unfortunately, the food at Aztec is not really Mexican at all, but rather tarted up mediocre Texmex. The beer was the first ominous clue. The choices were Corona (as in the Coors of Mexico) and a UK brewed beer that I had never encountered: Amigos, flavored with tequila. I was skeptical, but unimpressed with the overpriced US and New Zealand wines, and I was damned if I was going to drink Corona (which ain’t a regional Mexican beer). With a squeeze of lime, Amigos turned out to be just potable, a bit sweet but somewhat refreshing. It would have been even better if they had left out the tequila flavoring, but then they could have served a Dos Eques lager instead.
Guacamole: bland, any number of US “Mexican food” chains could have done better.
- Poblano pepper stuffed with spinach, goat cheese, and raisins: This was the best of the three, but only the goat cheese and the raisins registered above the vaguely vegetal background of the poblano and spinach. The poblano should have been roasted to blister the skin (rather than kind of baked) and the spinach dispensed with entirely. Now, I did not have Rick Bayless around and the internet sucks on the QM2 between 7AM and 2 AM, so I could not determine whether goat cheese and raisins play a big role in “regional Mexican cuisine,” but let’s just say that I have my doubts.
- Pulled pork enchilada: The enchilada shell was way too thick, the pulled pork compacted mush, and the pineapple salsa cloying.
- Braised short rib taco: This was more like a miniature version of the taco bowl found in Mexican chains across the world. How hard would it have been to use two soft tortillas to hold the filling like they do at every taco stand in Mexico? It would at least have been easier to eat: the Aztec version was awkward either with hands or cutlery. The recycled rib meat was virtually flavorless, while the jalapeños must have been the rare regional stealth variety.
At this point, with memories of the Veranda Grill’s culinary atrocity still seared into our consciousness, Team Mago engineered a gastro-intervention. We asked our friendly and helpful waitress if there was any hot sauce to be had. She replied that the only heat available was Asian, in the form of sambal and chili sauce. We asked for both and plied them on with a vengeance. This move saved the meal. With heat, all of the appies proved to be good, or at least so much better in comparison that the food came within striking distance of decent. And yet, I was compelled to wonder why I could get Tabasco sauce in the Princess Grill but not in a Mexican restaurant.
- Short ribs (again): served as a cube with decent flavor and an agreeable tooth. It wasn’t Mexican, but it was not bad, especially with liberal applications of sambal.
- Filet: Just which region of Mexico specializes in medium rare filet mignon served with a mushroom cream sauce? The filet mignon dumping on the QM2 is enough to earn WTO sanctions. Now, they do like lamb in Mexico so why not make a genuine regional Mexican dish out of the equally ubiquitous rack of lamb?
Shrimp and swordfish crepes with papilla chile, lime, queso fresco cheese, and ranchero sauce: a screaming and totally unnecessary misnomer. This dish was actually a ginormous fish taco and it was not half bad. In fact, I would be somewhat comfortable in claiming that it was Gulf Coast Mexican cuisine. There was plenty of shrimp and fish, both of which were correctly cooked and the veggies with a decent sauce complemented them nicely without overwhelming the fish. The presentation was straight out of Taco del Sole, however, and there was way too much of it. Again, three small traditional street food tacos would have been just fine and a much nicer presentation to boot.
Cajun spiced potato wedges: Well, I didn’t know that Cajun was a region in Mexico, and indeed I could not detect any Cajun flavor in the dish whatsoever. But those taters were perfectly roasted precious, crispy on the outside and fully done on the inside. I could not stop eating them. They should have been paired with roast chicken or rare roast beef with gravy (two traditional regional Mexican dishes).
Sweet potato fries: I guess sweet taters do come from the New World, but you usually do not associate fries of any type with classic Mexican or Tex Mex food. Anyway, they were a solid B, not nearly as good as the wedges but not bad.
Rice: mediocre and bland, too long between cooking and service.
Pinto beans: This dish was just bizarre. Take some sturdy, if pedestrian, pinto beans and then mix them 50/50 with the baked beans served up with the ship’s Full English breakfast (and just fine as such). The result was neither Mexican, nor regional, nor good. The sum was far less than the parts.
Dessert pancakes: overly compact uni-dimensional discs of vaguely dark chocolate cakage cemented with alternating layers of white chocolate icing. Now while dark chocolate has been employed in Mexican cooking for the better part of four millennia, white chocolate was invented by Nestles in Switzerland in the 1930s and is definitely not part of regional Mexican cuisine, or even really chocolate as far as I am concerned. In fact, I did not like white chocolate going in and this dish did not change my opinion. In addition to the icing, there was also white chocolate sauce, which served to reinforce the general lameness of the whole effort.
Churros with three dipping sauces: maybe the best effort of the evening. The churros came sugary, hot, and crunchy with delicately cavernous interiors.
- Spicy chocolate: at last some heat! This is the chocolate that should have been used in the pancakes.
- Peanut: while these legumes have been part of Mexican cooking for about 500 years, they are usually employed in chiles en nogada, mole poblano, botanas, and polvorones—not as a sauce for churros.
- Mango salsa: pretty much sucked.
With all its flaws, Aztec was still much better (and cheaper) than the Veranda Grill.
Mago Tip: Stick with the classics when dining on the QM2. If Cunard is so determined to sell nostalgia, they should emphasize the classics in their restaurants throughout the ship, at least the fine dining/specialty ones. People would probably respond much better than to horrific attempts at more modern cuisine.