A Lone Star in a Minnesota Mall

The Alamo Grill

Mall of America; 854-7456

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Alamo Grill

396 S. Blvd.
Bloomington, MN 55425

Category: Restaurant > Grill

Region: Bloomington

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"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet...
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Shakespeare, King John, Act IV, Scene ii.

Of course, Shakespeare is right, as he always is--but gilding lilies is often irresistible. Just consider tequila. To get tequila you must take a lily--and a lily is exactly what the blue agave Tequilana Weber is--then let it grow for eight or more years in the silicate-rich, volcanic soil of the Mexican state of Jalisco. During those eight years, constantly trim back the plant's spiky leaves, so that the central bulbous core, the piña, gets bigger and bigger. When the piña gets to looking like a giant 100 pound green pinecone, uproot it, carry it off, and bake it in a giant kiln, which converts the piña starches into sugars. Extract these lily sugars, ferment them, distill them twice, and you've certainly earned all the tequila that you'll end up with.

Then again, if you're strapped for time, you could just zip by the Alamo Grill for a few shots on your way out of Bloomingdale's. They've got an impressive variety, including the top-shelf Porfidio single and triple barrels, Sauza Conmemorativo, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Patron Silver and Gold, Chinaco, and Jose Cuervo's Reserva de la Familia. These are tequilas that are created with as much care as a single malt scotch is, from 100 percent blue agave, and some, like the Sauza Conmemorativo, Cuervo Reserva, and Patron Gold, are aged like whiskey or brandy, in charred oak casks for at least three years. The Cuervo Reserva is a real eye opener--it's smooth and mellow like a fine brandy or whiskey, but with tastes that are unlike anything else I've ever had. It's oaky, it's smoky, and then it's even sort of ghosty--evanescent where brandy is ripe, and dry and fleeting where whiskey is rich. If you've never had one of these premium tequilas you owe it to yourself to try one--they're as different from ordinary tequila as a chocolate soufflé is from an M&M. (The prices echo the M&M/souffle dichotomy--at the Alamo you'll pay $10 for a generous shot of Cuervo Reserva or Patron Gold.)

If you're feeling less epicurean and more Love Boat, the Alamo's cantaloupe-sized margaritas made with Cuervo Gold and triple sec ($6.25) are as festive and powerful as all get out. (Don't be fooled by the giant bins of limes behind the bar; you can't get a fresh lime-juice margarita here, or, as far as I can tell, anywhere in Minnesota. A handful of other restaurants--Table of Contents II, the St. Paul Grill, Campiello, the Dakota--have nice premium tequila selections. I think that if we mount a campaign asking for fresh lime-juice margaritas at these places we might just get one.) Other margaritas, like the blue one ($5.75) or the spicy one ($6.50), are tasty, and are guaranteed to make you look like the life of the party. Of all the things the Alamo does very well the drinks are premiere. Even the nonalcoholic ones are pretty great--particularly their fruity lemonade ($1.95), the light and nontannic "China Mist" ice tea ($1.75), and the big, kid-pleasing hot chocolate ($1.75).

The Alamo's front bar area is filled with giant Southwestern chairs, rough-hewn tables, and TVs. The long bar has a couple of hand-carved wooden stools shaped like horses' butts and legs, and a bartender told me all the stools used to be like that, but we Minnesotans didn't like the possibility of being the butt of jokes, so the Alamo took out most of the stools. (For me, this little anecdote has finally illuminated the Fargo brou-haha.) The Alamo is a Texas-based chain, and apparently Texans are a little more comfortable with being made fun of--or maybe it's just not an issue down there, with all the concealed weapons.

Traditional Texas barbecue is what the Alamo does best--and that's a tradition of meat marinated only with a vinegar and spice rub, then slow-cooked all day over a low fire, removed from the bone and served with a more traditional barbecue sauce. If their beef brisket got any more tender or flavorful it would be a cheese ($7.50 for a sandwich, $10.50 for a dinner plate with potato, lackluster cornbread, and beans). Their barbecued pork tenderloin ($7.25 for a sandwich) is also excellent--stringy, moist, savory. They do their steaks very well, preparing them exactly as requested. The Texas T-Bone ($14.95) arrived with a nice grill pattern, which I always think of as the sign of a chef who doesn't muck around, and tasted char-broiled--not merely singed, which is the taste that so many of today's lava-rock gas grills impart. My other favorite Alamo offering was their bread pudding with bourbon sauce. The pudding is definite and stands up to its sauce, and the sauce is sweet, creamy, and has just enough bourbon to give it character.

On the down side, there's the Alamo's nachos ($6.25). The Alamo describes them as the "best in America!" but they're actually a terrible mess--just a big, bloated, cemented mass of chili, sour cream and cheese trampling down huge defeated wet masses of tri-color chips. (Perhaps the nachos are the kitchen's cleverly coded political statement.) The signature "Boots 'N' Hats" fries (shaped like shoes and caps) were unpleasantly doughy and soft. The chili ($6.95) and the honey-mustard barbecued chicken ($10.95) were both too sugary, and there's something about the presence of (untasted) Fettuccine Alfredo ($10.50) and Caesar Salad ($5.95) on a Texan menu that's unnerving.

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