For the third meal in my eating out troika, I was taken to the local Tex-Mex restaurant El Azteco by my friends Patty and Renae. (And no, I do not have a friend named Gidget). I have waxed lovingly about El Az in the past, and was thrilled to find myself there on a sunny afternoon with my fellow Cougar/BFF/Soccer Moms, despite the fact that restaurant staff were prepping the rooftop dining area ready for spring in some manner that involved the use of jackhammers, and that they attempted to drown out the construction noise by turning the music up so loud that we found ourselves screaming about the goalie on the JV team and the popularity of various 6th grade boys.
El Az has always been cheap – their $1.00 bean and cheese burrito puts Taco Bell to shame – so I was surprised to see, in addition to the familiar large menu, a smaller version billing itself as an anti-recession menu with entrees hovering around the $5.00 range. The “budget” offerings included fideo, and fideo with chicken, which I probably should have ordered. I wanted to try something other than the Topopo Salad which I order as reflexively as I breathe in and out, or the aforementioned bean burritos which I have been eating since I worked in “downtown” East Lansing between college and law school, and needed a very cheap, very filling lunch. Instead, Renae and I ordered the “Vegetarian Combination” (or something like that) which promised a tamale, a gordita-type-thing, and a “serving of Topopo Salad with no chicken.” It sounded a little adventurous, and seemed to allow us to have our Topopo and something else, too. For half the price.
What I got was a tamale, a flat, tough cornmeal object, and a portion of apparently un-dressed lettuce, peas and cheese. The tamale was fine, the cornmeal object was dry and nearly impenetrable around the edges, and the “Topopo,” well, I was honestly expecting that even without the chicken, I would still receive some of the things that make a Topopo great, like the guacamole, the frijoles, the chips or the melted cheese. Patty kept offering me some of her Topopo (no one can eat a whole one, and Patty, who is approximately the size of the Mayor of Munchkinland, is not even a dark horse contender) and I kept refusing, feeling that I had made my lunch bed, and must lie in it. It sure looked good, though, her Topopo…..
The economy is not great, and there are many opinions on whether businesses are helping or preying when they pitch an offering as a “recession buster.” Whether these Economy Deals are generous or manipulative, the fact is that if you are paying for something that isn’t valuable, even if it’s cheap, it’s not much of a deal. If Renae and I had split a Topopo Salad-hold-the-chicken as we often do, it would have cost two dollars more than our combined Budget Meals, and would have been infinitely more satisfying. Maybe the fideo is wonderful, maybe we just picked the Bum Budget Buster, but even a beloved institution risks losing it’s loyal customers when they create and serve sub-par offerings.