There are two types of Mexican food restaurants in Tucson—the first category is big, airy restaurants where you take out-of-towners with palates used to Midwestern meat and potato diets. The restaurants have nice views and cute little tiled accents throughout, and everything comes with a vaguely spiced yellow-colored rice and a slew of refried beans with cheese on top. The second category consists of small, hole-in-the-wall places in occasionally questionable neighborhoods. These restaurants are decorated like Nana's kitchen, and the food is flavorful, fresh and often spicy. And they don't always feel obligated to slap beans and rice on every plate.
You can probably guess which category I'm putting Teresa's Mosaic Café into. It had been several years since I'd eaten there, and my memories of the food were far better than my recent experiences. Ted and I started off with margaritas: He had the Cadillac ($8), made with 1800 Reposado, Grand Marnier and "house sweet and sour." I had the Platinum ($7.50), made with Cointreau and Herradura silver. I don't like sweet margaritas, and I expect any decent Mexican restaurant to make its margaritas with fresh lime juice, not sweet and sour mix. Both of the drinks were extremely sweet and syrupy, and I found myself wishing I had ordered a beer instead.
The meal started off pleasantly enough with the shrimp ceviche appetizer ($10). Chopped, chilled shrimp was served in a martini glass and doused in a thin tomato-based sauce, which had nice flavor and good citrusy undertones. We also ordered a small guacamole ($5), which was unremarkable, and a bit bland.
Our entrées were inconsistent—Ted ordered the Alfonso's Plate ($15), which includes grilled, marinated pork loin, grilled flank steak, a chile relleno, a cheese enchilada, black beans, guacamole and flour tortilla; I ordered the tamale combination plate ($11 with one tamale or $12 with two), which comes with your choice of green corn or beef tamales, a cheese enchilada, a taco (choice of ground beef, chicken or machaca) and the standard rice and refried beans.
The pork loin and flank steak in Ted's entree were flavorful and well seasoned, but the chile relleno was soggy and boring. We both found the enchilada sauce flavorless—it tasted like straight, canned tomato sauce. My entree was worse—the two green corn tamales on my plate had been steamed so long that when I opened the corn husk, the tamale turned into a viscous, runny pile of masa with a clump of cheese in the middle. The texture made me gag and rendered it completely inedible. I chose machaca for my taco (served in a hard corn shell, which was not specified on the menu), and the grease and liquid from the machaca turned the bottom of the taco shell into a gummy mess. The machaca itself wasn't bad—I ended up picking it out of the taco shell and eating it separately. At least the handmade flour tortilla that came with Ted's entree was delish.
On our second visit, the entrees had better flavor but still weren't anything spectacular or remarkable. I decided on the carne con chile verde plate ($11), which was simply beef chunks slow-cooked in tomatillo sauce and served with rice, beans and tortillas. The tomatillo sauce had very little flavor, the beef chunks were a bit chewy and tough and the portion of meat was tiny—just a handful of beef chunks in a whole lot of sauce. Rice and beans took up two-thirds of the plate. Again, the tortillas were amazing. Ted opted for the carnitas plate ($14), which is served with the same tomatillo sauce and suffered from many of the same issues. Carnitas should be crispy on the outside—this wasn't, but at least it was tender. The flavor and seasoning were much better than on the carne con chile verde plate, but it wasn't anything to write home about, and the carnitas suffered from the same portion problems.
Dessert was equally unimpressive. I'm a total sucker for sopapillas ($5), but despite being deep-fried, they should also be light and airy. The plate came with three flat, fried triangles of thick, chewy tortilla, which were absolutely drowning in cinnamon sugar, honey and whipped cream. They weren't the fried pastries that I'm used to, and serving them with the honey already poured on top ensures that they will be soggy and flat by the time they arrive at the table.
Service on both visits was as unremarkable as the food—neither particularly good nor particularly terrible—though it was quite slow on the second visit, particularly toward the end of the meal when the crowd started to pick up.
Teresa's Mosaic Cafe was on the Food Network's Throwdown! with Bobby Flay in 2010 for its huevos rancheros (Bobby's huevos won out). Perhaps that had a negative impact on the food. In my experience, lots of publicity (especially of the television variety) tends to ruin restaurants and a restaurant can't live or die by a single dish.