Can a Tex-Mex "cantina" with chain ambitions stand up to Chili's?
“Have you been dreaming of our Famous Fajitas and margaritas? Do you think you have what it takes to open your own Dos Diablos? This could be you!” This cutout of a heavy-set male, flanked by two thin women in going-out clothes, could be you. At least according to Dos Diablos’s website, which features an “Own My Own Dos Diablos” page. So this new River North spot eventually wants to be a franchise. No harm in that. But after my first visit—and my first order of Macho Nachos and Famous Fajitas—I felt as if I were already eating at a chain outpost, where the food had been focus-grouped down to mediocrity. I wondered: Could this even compete with the big-box boys?
That’s how I ended up two blocks north of Dos Diablos, at the downtown location of Chili’s (2 E Ontario St, 312-943-1510), dissecting Dos Diablos’s doppelgangers. First I order a frozen margarita. It’s bigger than Diablos’s, stronger than Diablos’s and costs $4.50—which is $4.50 less than Diablos’s. 0–1.
Nachos. Broken down to their ingredients, they could have come off the same food-service-delivery vehicle as every cafeteria’s. The same pulled chicken, the same diced tomatoes that taste like water, the same sliced jalapeños. Though the Diablos version absolutely dwarfs Chili’s in size—one order could feed an entire River North’s worth of blue-shirted denizens—it’s not much more appetizing. Both versions taste as if they’ve been sitting all afternoon on the line, dressed in their cheesy finest, awaiting a diner’s call. Point for each. 1–2.
Who’s up for a battle of the salads? It’s a dead heat between the Quesadilla Explosion at Chili’s and the Southwestern at Diablos: again, nearly identical grilled chicken, flavorless corn, watery tomato, black beans, overdressed lettuce. The Chili’s version isn’t as nicely presented, but the cheese quesadillas it comes with are the best part of either salad. It also costs $9, to Dos Diablos’s $14, for a salad of equivalent ginormousness. Call it even. 2–3.
In the steak-fajita realm, Dos Diablos takes an easy victory. Unlike at Chili’s, where the steak comes out well-done, Diablos cooks to the requested temperature: Mine came out a solid, tender medium-rare. 3–3! Diablos ties the game!
I piled the steak with guac and grilled onions into a buttery flour tortilla. There were no limes on hand, no acidity attempted for balance. This food is fatty, salty, sweet—the type of school-lunch fare the First Lady protests. It is food, Dos Diablos seems to demonstrate, best left to manboys.
And to understand why Dos Diablos exists—i.e., why the owners did not just franchise a Chili’s if they loved playing-to-the-middle Tex-Mex food so much—it might be prudent to discuss this manboy thing. On a lunch visit, every seat at Dos Diablos was full: of guys. I counted no more than seven other women customers. The food at Diablos and Chili’s may be indistinguishable, but the new kid isn’t emulating the chain’s family-friendly vibe.
Its audience: dude yuppies. The menu has a section called “We Dare You,” under which is listed the Big Mel—a 3.5-pound chimichanga that, if consumed in less than 20 minutes, is gratis. I like chimichangas as much as the next guy, so I ordered the regular-size one—the one not listed under “We Dare You.” I also ordered a salad to split with my companion. “That’s a lot of food,” the waitress cautioned. On the one hand, I appreciated her honesty. It was a lot of food. On the other hand, isn’t that, like, the point here?
I have a hard time believing otherwise, since that chimichanga came out covered in a bucket’s worth of cheese, rendering the best part of this guilty pleasure—the crispy, fried exterior (duh!)—soft. Bummer. Also a bummer: the bland enchiladas. And the acidity-free Baja fish tacos.
But I’m just a girl. So while a big, beefy chimichanga is probably not something I want to worry about, I do love dessert! The chocolate tamale bakes a hot lava cake inside a corn husk: Sorry, haters, it’s genius. The husk keeps the lava hot the whole time you’re eating it. If there were a 3.5-pound version on the menu, I would, without hesitation, order it. You could dare me.