Memphians love Mexican food, whether it's authentic, Tex-Mex, or a version so Americanized that it's covered in white processed cheese. Yes, this is a barbecue town, but I find people ask me about Mexican restaurants more than any other.
At times, as happened recently, we play the game of the perfect Mexican dinner. You know, salsa from one place, chips from another, guacamole here and fajitas there.
Los Pilares was reported to have the best shrimp cocktail. This was a new name to me, and it so happened that the very next night we were sitting under a canopy of hanging philodendron, enjoying a very good shrimp cocktail.
The Mexican version is more like gazpacho than a shrimp cocktail you'd find in a steak house. It's usually served in a large glass -- perhaps a tall milkshake glass or a beer schooner, which is a round, footed glass. Chances are you've seen them, even if you haven't tried one.
Shrimp, medium-sized plump ones at Los Pilares, float in a tomato juice that's typically a bit sweet because of added catsup, spicy with pepper, and full of avocado and onion, too.
Often these cocktails are too sweet and too thick because there is just too much catsup in the sauce. And that's just not good. It detracts from the freshness you expect from a seafood dish, particularly one with bright flavors such as tomato, lime and cilantro.
But Los Pilares does a good job. The cocktail is chilled but not icy cold, the sweetness in the tomato base is restrained and it's balanced with the heat from diced jalapeno peppers, which are on the mild side (or were, when we ordered it; heat from peppers can vary). Plenty of creamy diced avocado and finely minced onion join the shrimp, there's a nice tang of lime and more limes are served on the side, and Valentino hot sauce, a brand that adds flavor as well as heat, is delivered with your order.
A small serving is plenty for a light meal, but it's suitable for an appetizer for a hearty eater or for sharing (ask for a bowl and the server will bring it).
Don't expect to find much else light on the menu, though. There are a few seafood selections, but the fare at Los Pilares is mostly meat, with plenty of cheese, beans and rice. The crowded dining room, particularly at lunch, is a clear indication that folks are OK with that.
The fajitas especial Los Pilares is a big plate of meat. Grilled chicken, chorizo, beef and shrimp are topped with a pork chop, and mixed in for plenty of flavor are grilled onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms, the latter so deeply flavored they would've been nice alone.
A single order of fajitas, in just about any Mexican restaurant, is enough for two. This single order is especially large here, and comes with a plate of rice, beans and a salad with a scoop of guacamole. You can eat as is, or use it to garnish the tacos you make with tortillas that come on the side.
Also good at Los Pilares was an order of carnitas. Despite being described as "fried" on the menu, the pieces of pork seemed to be as slow-cooked and tender as some of the better restaurant versions of the dish in town.
The garlic shrimp was flavorful enough, and the shrimp were tender and plentiful. Unfortunately, the sauce was also swimming with those tiny bits of jarred garlic that have a slightly off flavor to me. It didn't affect the flavor of the shrimp, but did mean I had to pick carefully through the dish to avoid the garlic. The better garlic shrimp dishes in local Mexican restaurants are made with whole cloves of garlic, which can easily be pushed aside or even spread on a tortilla for a treat.
The menu is quite large and in addition to some of the more authentic items as mentioned above, includes all the usual Tex-Mex/Americanized fare: Burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas and so on. Lunch and dinner specials include numerous combinations of these items along with hard tacos, chalupas and various such items. These meals are inexpensive, quick, plentiful and typical.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 6063 Mt. Moriah (other locations at 47 Navy Rd. in Millington and 6249 Stage Rd. in Bartlett were not reviewed).
Telephone: (901) 795-0302.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Shrimp cocktail (small $7.99; medium, $9.99; large $12.99); fajitas especial Los Pilares (single order $12.49); carnitas ($9.49).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars