On both of my visits to DiCarlo's Mustard Seed Mexican-Americana Restaurant & Bar, I asked different employees if the name of the restaurant was a reference to the New Testament parable in Matthew 17:20. You know, the one in which Jesus admonishes his disciples that if they had "faith as a grain of mustard seed," they could tell the nearest mountain to "remove hence to yonder place and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible unto you."
Jesus and the faith of a mustard seed notwithstanding, getting a lucid answer proved to be a mountain I couldn't budge. In fact, the pretty young waitresses were ill-equipped to answer pretty much anything I asked them. Even more frustrating, I couldn't get a member of the DiCarlo family to talk to my table. Mary DiCarlo, the clan's matriarch, glanced over at where I was sitting with my friend Carol, on a very slow Monday night, and shot us an annoyed look. Faith might move mountains, but it wasn't moving Mary.
One waitress explained the restaurant's history this way: "It opened in 1985 as the Mustard Seed," she said. "And then it became a couple of other nightclub concepts, like Maniacs."
Ignoring me, the waitress went on. "And in 2007, it became a Mexican-Americana restaurant. We stay open late almost every night because everyone has such a blast here!"
The kitchen stops serving meals around 11 p.m., but the combination dining room and saloon is Highway 40 headquarters for other festivities: drinking potent cocktails, playing Club Keno and dancing until the wee hours. The DiCarlo family has a mission, you see, which it happily clarifies on the restaurant's website: "Bring great people together, serve them great food and drink and give them a place to dance and have the time of their life."
I didn't have the time of my life at the restaurant. But I did have a couple of decent meals, and that's really all I wanted in the first place. Maybe I should have eaten a little later in the evening, when the "great people" must get there. The clientele I saw seemed pretty ordinary, and all of us appeared to be much more interested in Monday's "all you can eat" taco special than in kicking up our heels and making lifetime memories.
"What this place really needs," Carol Ann said, taking a healthy sip from her margarita, "is a few more maniacs."
Carol Ann, an interior designer, surprised me by claiming to really like the décor at the Mustard Seed. It's a vast space — nearly as large as an airport terminal — with nary an inch of wall that hasn't been decked out with artwork (including a very moving portrait of the late John Wayne, gazing off into the distance), carvings of smiling lizards, and assorted oddities. Carol Ann was particularly amused by a lizard that appeared to be sporting a swollen red erection. "Now that's something you won't see at On the Border or Chili's," she said, unrolling one of the little terry-cloth guest towels that DiCarlo's offers as napkins.
The menu here is large, elaborate and odd (among its notions: the "Apocalypto Taco"). It's composed mainly of traditional Tex-Mex — very good Tex-Mex, including first-rate guacamole and a thick, creamy queso. Not much here falls into the "Americana" category, other than salads; wrap sandwiches; two pasta creations; and a modestly priced Kansas City strip dinner that includes a petite tossed salad, vegetables and crispy fries. (The DiCarlos make up for their place's border-centricity by calling their spuds "freedom fries." It's a patriotic menu.)
Last Monday, the steak was one of the featured specials: $18.99 for a 10-ounce grilled strip. It was neither very big nor very juicy, but it had a lot of flavor. The vegetable medley that came with it had rounded up the usual subjects (peppers, squash, carrots) and hosed them off till they were good and soggy.
Carol Ann was tempted to try one of DiCarlo's strangely Alpine concoctions: enchiladas topped with green sauce and a layer of molten Swiss cheese. But she settled on the empanada dinner instead. The two fat, flaky pastries came stuffed with seasoned ground beef and tasted terrific doused with one of the three good house-made salsas: traditional, hot and a "sweet and smoky" variation our waitress said was new.
We shared a hunk of cheesecake folded into a cinnamon-sugar wrapped tortilla that goes from freezer to deep fryer. What the menu suggested would be a Mexicali-Yiddish innovation was more like sopapillas on a South Beach vacation: sweet, creamy and delicate.
The dining room was much busier on a weekend night when I dined with Martha and Bob. "We get a lot of big parties on weekends," our waitress explained, pointing in the direction of a group decorating a corner of the dining room with balloons and banners. "People really enjoy coming here."
Of course they do. It's the time of their lives.
My trio never rose to the festive heights enjoyed by the party people, but we had come to eat, not carry on. Besides, perkiness can be contagious. Everyone around us seemed friendly, and no one in sight seemed ever to have embarked on a diet.
"I feel like a Barbie doll," Martha said.
"I do, too," Bob agreed. "Let's order guacamole."
Martha even felt emboldened enough to order one of the two pasta dishes on the menu, a bowl of penne tossed in tomato-basil sauce with sauteed chicken, bacon, leeks and baby portobello mushrooms. This might be considered a vaguely Italian dish on any other menu, but in keeping with the south-of-the-border theme at DiCarlo's, the penne came with warm tortillas.
Bob stuck to Tex-Mex, settling on a trio of tacos filled with all three of the featured ingredients: ground beef, pulled beef and chicken. I had tasted a couple of DiCarlo's tacos during the "all you can eat" special, and they were good a second time — not fancy but fine. I was less impressed with the battered and fried tilapia tacos, called Cabo San Lucas here. The fish had been slathered liberally with a fiery chipotle aïoli, until it was the color of Cheez-Whiz. It came with a tart cole slaw; the lemony tang subdued the heat of the chipotle aïoli, but I wish the cabbage had retained its crispness.
We didn't stick around for dessert (though Bob was tempted by the fried ice cream) or a few Keno games. Instead, we paid our tab and headed back to the city. Bob and Martha liked the restaurant, but I still found myself resisting its oddball charm. Then I noticed, on a shelf at the waiters' station, a small statue of the Infant of Prague. If you've been praying for something called an Apocalypto Taco, DiCarlo's is the place to restore your faith.