Not the same old Browning's 

If you haven't yet been to the new Browning's Mexican Grill because you hated the food at the old place, forget about it. It's not the same. However, if you are going to Browning's because they've kept many "tribute menu items" from yesteryear, forget about them, too. They're not the same either.

This is truly a new Browning's, which you'll know long before any food or drink passes your lips. It's a large, loud, hopping place - at least on one recent Thursday night - with a long bar, flat-screen monitors showing sports and an open floor plan. It's a see-and-be-seen Heights hangout and probably will stay that way. The neighborhood needed a large anchor, and Browning's now is it.

As for the food, it's nothing like the old Browning's - the quintessential "brown with cheese" glop that many of us loved as kids because that was all we knew or could know. An oft-told family story recounts me falling over in my high chair at Browning's as an 18-month-old baby (not sure I've been the same since), and it wasn't too many years later when I tried my first beef taco after weaning off Browning's hamburgers.

After Juanita's opened, and then the onslaught of Mexican-owned/operated spots hit town, many realized that Browning's of old wasn't many (or any) notches up from a Patio frozen dinner.

Will this ain't that. It's not the best Mexican food in town, based on a recent large dinner shared with friends. But it's not the worst.

We started our dinner as every meal at Browning's always has and undoubtedly always will - with salsa, cheese dip and chips. (And now that 18-months-old is far in the rearview mirror, with an outstanding, top-shelf "Browning's Margarita" - $7.50.) The salsa is a lot like the old Browning's, not at all chunky, with a strong tomato taste, more like a thick picante sauce than what today is the salsa standard.

We went for the traditional yellow queso ($3.99) marked with a sombrero graphic on the menu indicating it as a "tribute item." It actually came in two bowls, one the old-school traditional and one that has been declared the "new" style of yellow. We liked the traditional blend best, smoother, with more cumin and not at all Velvetea-y, a lot like the famed Mexico Chiquito dip. The nouveau model is chunked a bit with tomato and not very spicy, passable but barely. White cheese dip ($4.99) is also available, and though not sombrero-designated it's still called a "Browning's classic."

Among the entrees, our favorite, unexpectedly, was a "tribute item" - the famed/infamous Plato de Saltillo, though outrageously priced at $12.99. It combines a "cheese taco," which is the old-school Browning's term for what the rest of the world calls a cheese enchilada, plus a beef enchilada and a beef taco. The cheese enchilada was firm, sharp with cheddar and very tasty - not just a cheese dip enchilada. The beef enchilada and taco were solid quality, meaty and tasty. And the whole thing wasn't covered in glop.

We chose two entrees that have been among our favorites at other Mexican restaurants - carnitas and tacos al carbon. The carnitas ($10.99) featured a large hunk of very tender, slow-roasted pork, but while said to be cooked in a "citrus broth and spices," this meat was very bland. The only accoutrements, besides very decent corn tortillas, were avocado and corn relish, neither of which offered enough zing to give this dish much life.

The tacos al carbon ($10.99) were also very bland. We realized later the menu said there'd be a choice of chicken or steak, but we were given no option. Steak we got, and steak we would have chosen, but still. Nor did we receive the guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream that were billed as the accoutrements. Bland beef rolled in a corn tortilla just didn't do much for any of us.

One of the best features of entrees at Browning's is that you don't automatically get rice and beans. Rather, you can choose two of eight far-ranging side items, which include guacamole, lime rice, Mexican slaw, refried beans, black beans, rice, black bean soup and tortilla soup.

With three entrees in the mix we had six opportunities for sides; we tried all but the Mexican slaw and the refried beans. The guacamole ($3.99 a la carte) is top-rate: chunky with no filler; it has a hint of spice, but mostly the avocado shines through, as it should. The side is solid portion, about half a normal appetizer order.

The other two stars were the black bean soup - blended to between smooth and chunky and very spicy; double yum - and, believe it or not, the Mexican rice, which was light, flavorful and about as perfect as something that pedestrian can be.

Otherwise, the lime rice was short on lime; the black beans were solid and fine, but no big deal; the tortilla soup was oddly gelatinous and bland, definitely the loser in this bunch.

For dessert - like we needed it - we opted for the Tres Leches Dessert Rolls ($4.99) - four rolled, crisp tortillas with cream filling and chocolate drizzle, topped with whipped cream. They were creamy, crunchy, just chocolaty enough, mighty tasty, and ample for the money.

Service was strong all the way around. It appears that Browning's has a team waiting approach, because we were served by and checked on by many different folks before and during our meal. It wasn't at all overwhelming and actually was appreciated, because the place was packed, and all the wait staff surely was being pulled in many directions. When our dessert didn't arrive as quickly as one waiter thought it should, he declared it would be taken off our bill, even though we didn't feel delayed. Nice touch.

Browning's has enough good things going for it to deserve a try: a fun atmosphere good drinks and decent food. And we're betting the off-the-mark menu items will also improve over time.

For hours, address and other info, go here.

Speaking of Browning's Mexican Grill, Browning's Mexican Food

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