Last year I got very excited that Exeter was to receive two new restaurants on Alphington Road. The long derelict site that had once been MST (the tractor dealers) had been home to advertising hoardings and some sort of car washing operation in recent years. It wasn’t a great advertisement for Exeter. The bulldozers moved in a couple of years ago and in less than six months, up popped two chain restaurants. I am sure they just added water…
Chiquito and Franky & Benny’s overlooks a non-descript junction somewhere on Alphington Road, opposite a retail complex, next door to a Vauxhall dealership. This piece of prime location has had four (maybe five) properties squeezed on to a small piece of land with a rather small car park between them. There are no trees, there is little else but the bright neon glow of their signs beaming out across the night sky.
We were eating with some good friends of ours, one of them had been before. The scene was set, the table booked, it was going to be a great evening. And it was, just a shame about the portions and the price.
The outside of the restaurant is a beige box-like affair. But step inside and it becomes very different. Dark browns, reds, a cocktail bar with illuminated yellow glass, an open kitchen and booths. Although there is a proliferation of booths, there is a very open plan feel to the restaurant which made the inside feel bigger than it was. If Mexican telly produced their own version of Doctor Who, I am sure their Tardis would look very similar to this restaurant.
I’ve found on previous visits to these sorts of restaurants that the service, although polite and friendly, can be pretty pushy at getting a decision out of you. We sat down, we talked for 40 odd seconds and the service came back to ask if we had decided what we wanted to drink. Of course we hadn’t but she said she’d come back. This continued twice more, we suggested that she give us more than one drinks menu which might speed up the process.
The cocktails had good reports from the ladies, I went for a Brahma and my other companion was on the Magner’s Cider. Prices were at the steeper end of the chain-drink-markup scale.
The menu is presented as a small book, and its pretty good. There is a considered balance between the ‘traditional’ Mexican and the more generic types of food that Brits love like Burgers and stuff involving chicken in various forms.
The prices throughout the menu were on the upper-end of what I would be happy paying at a chain. But then who knows how much the land rent is, given the position and potential for massive footfall in a spot like this.
The menu included curiosities such as ‘Street Food’ and they even had a Burger called the Hero Burger that I nearly went for. But I settled on a BBQ Texan Chicken Melt (Grilled marinated chicken breast with chorizo & sweetcorn, covered with melted cheese. Served with skin-on-fries, corn on the cob, onion rings, homemade slaw and BBQ sauce) for £14.95 and Tori had a go at the Street Food, Three for £12.95 offer.
It was a Friday night, so the restaurant was busy. There was a children’s party next door to us (they were all very well behaved so this wasn’t even an issue) and lots of families. This sort of restaurant has a varied clientele; couples and family groups were all enjoying the experience and given the speed that the food came out, it didn’t feel like we had really been waiting that long.
The food arrived and my heart sank a little. I had 27 skin-on fries, and what seemed to be a square of chicken which was about the size of two Findus Crispy Pancakes put together on the long-edge side. And yes, before you ask, Crispy Pancakes can be used as a legitimate unit of measurement for measuring area on a plate.
Tori’s Street Food came out, three tiny bowls with a small portion of food on each. These were less than two Crispy Pancakes each, and given the concept of Street Food I have been introduced to by the likes of Eat The Smoke, La Catina etc. that make Chiquito portions look a bit stingy to say the least.
But the taste was good. It was a well cooked bit of chicken that was moist, it was seasoned really nicely and the accompaniments worked together. The onion rings were perfect cylinders, and what there was of the coleslaw was really well made. From around the table, the Street Food tasted good, everything was cooked well and there was nothing that we wouldn’t have had again.
The dessert menu was a big temptation after the portion sizes of the mains (psychological trick methinks?) So Tori and I shared a ‘Mexican Mess’ (Churros, chocolate brownie, chocolate sauce, strawberry pieces, raspberry ripple ice cream and strawberry yoghurt topped with cream, served in our cinnamon tortilla basket) £5.95 mostly because of the brownie element of it.
It came out and the fig-leaf had clearly failed on this one. If you don’t quite get it, look closely and tell me what you see? It provided much amusement to our dirty minds.
The dessert surpassed my expectation in terms of size, but then we discovered the brownie element was quite literally a spoonful (as shown), which I believe in Crispy Pancake measurement is about 0.25 Crispy Pancakes. There was one Churro, that being the phallic thing sticking out of it, and it was 80% aerosol cream.
I can’t say that our time at Chiquito was terrible because it wasn’t. The company was fantastic, the service was functional and quick. There was a wait for desserts but the service came and told us exactly why there was a wait, the atmosphere was vibrant and busy, it was a nice place and if you’re not fussed about money then I would recommend it.
But if you are like me and getting value for money is at the heart of your ethos when eating out, then this isn’t the place for you. If you’re on a tight budget, then this isn’t the place for you. If you’re hungry and need a large portion to fill you up, then depending on what you have (I haven’t had the whole menu so it might be that I was just unlucky), then I wouldn’t recommend it.
But if you really really want good Mexican, catch Gus at Taco Macho in Fore St.when he’s open and get cheap wholesome Mexican food made by a real Mexican.