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Review: Locally owned Patron Mexican chain needs to turn up the heat

Nachos are like a fun but crazy date. You probably shouldn't, but you order them for the train-wreck appeal.

Assuming there is such a thing, the best nachos are served as a mound of guilty-pleasure ingredients. Salty, fried tortillas stay crisp under a blanket of cheese, a slather of beans, a heap of meats, a sprinkle of tomatoes and a handful of jalapenos, with a garnish of herbs and crema.

Patron Mexican Grill
135 S. Highland Ave.
East Liberty


  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
  • Basics: Locally owned Patron opened its fourth restaurant in the Pittsburgh area, with serviceable fare and an emphasis on chips and drinks.
  • Dishes: Seven types of nachos, house margaritas.
  • Prices: Express lunch $6.99 to $9.99; appetizers, quesadillas, a la carte and sides 99 cents to $14.99; especialidades $9.99 to $16.99; new specialties, soup and salad $4.25 to $15.99; seafood, vegetarian, combo and kids menu $6.50 to $14.99; fajitas and steaks $11.99 to $29.99.
  • Summary: andicapped-accessible, credit cards, takeout.

Bad nachos broach embarrassment with their soggy chips, limp lettuce, a goop of processed cheesefood and beef that looks like Fido's dinner.

A rescue is often close at hand, especially if you're sitting at the bar. Ward off disappointment with a giant beer, a tequila shot or a margarita -- or three -- and those nachos will do the trick.

This was my plan when I kicked off a weekend during happy hour at Patron, perched on a prime corner of East Liberty real estate -- its fourth location in the area and the first in the city.

Patron is a locally-owned business from Martin Bolanos, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 from Michoacan, Mexico, a state on the Pacific coast. He opened his first restaurant in Pine in 2007, with later locations in Monroeville and the Fox Chapel area.

With festive decor, tight service and a cadre of Mexican employees, some aspects of Patron hold promise. Yet that's not so when it comes to the food, which includes Tex-Mex favorites without the flavor, like a menu for spice-averse gringos in the mid-'80s. Although the once-regular Ben Roethlisberger may disagree, Patron falls far short of the ambition of many other Pittsburgh restaurants, including recently-opened Mexican joints and taquerias around the city.

The entrance to the new place starts with a carpet through the cavernous dining room, which is a cacophony of color from furniture created by Mexican folk artists. Each table is an oasis because the furniture is massive. When dining with families, this can be a plus.

Up a ramp and past a life-sized cardboard mariachi player, I found my friend sitting at the bar near a giant margarita glass that could have doubled as a hat.

He drank a house margarita ($6.50) with a healthy pour of triple sec. I failed to take the glass cue and ordered a large beer ($7.98) -- so tall one could drown in the first sip.

Chips, the requisite thirst-enhancer, come with salsa without any discernible heat, garlic or interestingness. I couldn't help but wonder how it compares to a jar on sale at Sheetz.

Back to those nachos. Of the six variations, we ordered the works ($11.99) "with great amounts of beans, chicken, beef, lettuce, tomatoes, beans and sour cream."

In less time than it should take to make them, a server returned with an incredibly hot plate with a stripe of beans, a stripe of beef and another of chicken over chips smothered in requisite melted cheese, a salad's worth of lettuce, a spoon of sour cream and a pair of tomato slices.

It reminded me of after-hours nachos zapped in a college dorm room microwave after a drunken night.

"Is this hitting the spot?" asked my friend. Though I was wildly underwhelmed, it was nothing good company and a giant beer wouldn't offset.

On another visit, I started a la carte. Soft tacos (about $3 each) are sold with either beef or chicken: no pork, chorizo or seafood, all of which are on the menu but were not available a la carte during my visits.

Tacos arrive on a plate wrapped in foil, which you unfold to find a soft taco of equal parts shredded lettuce and ground meat that tastes like packaged Ortega. It's dressed with an unsettling froth of crema and a couple shreds of cheese.

I ordered more food in search of bigger flavors. Chile relleno ($5) is stuffed, battered and fried, a lively dish, except when I sliced it and found the dish was doused in watery sauce, so the batter was as crisp as if you'd run it under a faucet.

Mid-visit, I fantasized about an exit plan. I pined for hole-in-the-wall taquerias. I craved tacos stuffed with fresh, flavorful ingredients nestled in homemade tortillas. I wanted to be dazzled or at the very least, engaged.

To ward off boredom, I ordered tableside guacamole (it was fine) and horchata (that was good).

I followed these with a plate of tacos camaron ($8.99, $10.99) with rubbery shrimp and chicken mole ($9.99, $12.99) tinged with chocolate and chilies. That most layered, heavy and complex dish was the one I liked the most.

Which brings me to why review this restaurant. With multiple locations, Patron has seen success, so it's beyond mom-and-pop status and can withstand criticism.

If the kitchen chooses not to spice up the menu, perhaps a Steeler can rescue this location, since more than Monday-night 95-cent tacos and dirt-cheap drinks are needed to salvage the place.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.

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