You've got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls. The route to Mazatlan — the Northland restaurant, not the Mexican city of the same name — is a climb, too. The restaurant is on top of a bluff overlooking Interstate 29. Just remember to turn left at the McDonald's and keep moving. You won't be able to see the Valley of the Dolls from this pinnacle, but you'll have a spectacular view of the new Hy-Vee, which has a pharmacy.
Mazatlan is not the easiest venue to find at ground level, which may be one of the reasons for the failure of the building's previous tenants: two ill-fated PB&J concept restaurants and then, for several years, a branch of Ann Liberda's Thai Place chain.
But the owner of Mazatlan has done wonders in even more daunting locations in dreary strip centers. Jorge Castillo is probably better known for his popular but distinctly unglamorous Maria's Mexican restaurants. There's one in Platte City and another in Atchison. I ate once at the Maria's in Platte City and have no reason to go back. Mazatlan has a similar menu, but it's a different story.
"Mazatlan has more seafood dishes," one of the managers explained to me. That makes sense, with 64th Street and I-29 being closer to the West Coast than Platte City. The seafood in this instance is mostly camarones (shrimp), served chilled in a cocktail glass or stuffed with jalapeño peppers, sheathed in bacon and grilled or folded into a quesadilla.
My friend Cathy was mad for the shrimp quesadilla after the first bite and took the dish away from her husband, Dan. "This is a case where the more exotic dish is better than the usual stuff," she explained. Like many of my friends, Cathy doesn't get too adventurous when it comes to the cuisines of Mexico and Spain. Her eyes skipped over anything unfamiliar on the menu. She went straight for the combination plates: tacos, burritos, enchiladas.
I've given up trying to encourage Cathy and her kind to break pattern and try something different at local Mexican restaurants. Most are unwilling. They like tacos, and tacos are what they like. Carne asada sounds so ... foreign.
I'm sympathetic to this resistance, but what passes for tacos, burritos and enchiladas at too many places is, in a word, gloppy. Given a choice between foreign and gloppy, I prefer the former. And Mazatlan doesn't deal in glop. What Cathy would call "the usual stuff" is very tasty here, and the best way to sample much of it is indeed in a combo. In this case, the sampler plate called the Botanas Platter, a big ol' pile of good stuff, is the best bet. It's a heap of chicken-fajita nachos topped with a large scoop of guacamole (not extraordinary but not bad) and a tangy pico de gallo. But wait, there's more: triangles of chicken-fajita quesadillas and thumb-sized chicken taquitos. There's also a small bowl of bland, runny queso, but let's not count that. This is the kind of cheese sauce that has maybe 30 minutes of life before congealing enough to use as a tire patch.
The Botanas Platter makes a shareable meal if you order your own salad to go with it. But I've seen the dinner salad at Mazatlan, and you're better off without its shredded iceberg lettuce and individual plastic packet of Kraft dressing. "You have a choice of three dressings," the waiter offered. "Ranch, Thousand Island and blue cheese." Not very south- of-the-border, but in the Midwest, Thousand Island dressing used to be pretty exotic stuff.
I ordered a steak that night, the very inexpensive 12-ounce T-bone "cooked to perfection" — or so the menu says. Perfection was irrelevant. It was such a cheap cut of beef that it made the nearby Golden Corral seem as appealing as the Golden Ox.
On one of my visits to Mazatlan, I arrived alone. The dining room was nearly empty, but the pretty hostess directed me immediately to one of the worst tables in the place: a cramped deuce near the bar. I asked for a different table. My server that evening was a beautiful young waitress, a native of El Salvador. I asked her for a couple of her personal favorites, and she blushed. "The food is very good here," she said, "but this isn't anything like what we eat in El Salvador."
She sang high praise for the carnitas, however, so I ordered the dish, described on the menu as simmered "pork tips." I was relieved to see something much more in keeping with traditional carnitas: pieces from a deliciously tender pork shoulder that tasted as if it had been simmered all day — slightly browned, fragrant with garlic and absolutely succulent. I couldn't finish the meal because there was so much meat.
"Would you like dessert?" the server asked, bringing me a Styrofoam box.
That night, I didn't. But on a previous visit, I had tasted the pretty little flan and taken a bite of the softball-sized fried ice cream, which was as pointless and tasteless as any other fried ice cream in the city.
"It tastes like it's coated with oatmeal," said Dan, who had never seen fried ice cream before. No, it wasn't oatmeal — that might at least have been healthy — but crushed cereal or tortilla shells or God knows what. It's an American innovation, and some people do love it. The other dessert option here is the cheesecake chimichanga: a little piece of New York-deli-style cheesecake, wrapped in a flour tortilla, fried and served pure Texas-style, dusted in cinnamon sugar and smothered in lots of chocolate sauce, caramel and crushed Oreos. After that kind of finale, I'd be in the Valley of the Dolls, all right — a sugar coma.
Even with its miscalculations, though, Mazatlan is a tasteful, attractive place to eat unchallenging, sometimes very satisfying Mexican food. Sit on the patio before the cold really hits. On a clear day, you can see ... well, not forever, but maybe Parkville.