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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Overcast
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Happy Grill is cheap and filling 82 different ways
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Credit:Stick People Productions

My new culinary crush, New York chef April Bloomfield, gives some good cautionary advice: "Remember, it's easy to make simple food taste great" - as long as you don't mess it up (to finish her statement more delicately than she did).

Not to say all Mexican cuisine is simple, but much like Italian food, I think it shows that simple can be sublime. It would be good advice for Happy Grill to heed. So far, this new Mexican restaurant (in the space formerly occupied by El Pescador and Bub's Burger Joint) is one of those places where the portions are big and prices are low - but so is my incentive to return.

It's a pretty generic interior. Booths, tables, pane windows. Not the type of restaurant you visit to soak in the room, but that's okay. The food is where it's at for this place. You do get a lot of food for your buck, but nothing wowed me.

The menu has 82 items, from breakfast to seafood to menudo, while still covering basics like tacos and burritos. I can almost hear Gordon Ramsay shouting bloody murder over why they need 82 options when one poor first impression might not open the door for a second.

Li He, who runs the restaurant with her husband in the space her uncle owns, waited on us the first night. I liked her. She was nice. I wanted to give her my business. Although there was a mix-up in our order, she dealt with it right away and even gave us a slight discount. Problem fixed, great. On a second visit we had a server who had a friend waiting in the wings and was clearly ready to check out before we were; or maybe already had. He dropped our bill as I intercepted him with a request for sugar doughnuts - which were pretty dense, and increasingly so as they sat in our bellies; I'd love to see churros in their place. He dropped the revised check while talking on his cell phone. I realize this is Happy Grill, but dude.

His one saving grace: He recommended the whole fried tilapia, or mojarra frita. Although the fish was scored really deep (and some of it was slightly overcooked in those parts), the skin was crispy and the fish was generally moist inside. I'd have it again, especially for $8.

The enchiladas verde are also one of the promising finds. The shredded chicken is fork-tender, and the verde sauce perks up the dish with a nice kick of lime. It passed the Clean Plate Club test.

Of all the cuts of meat I had, the beef tongue won hands down. Haven't had it? It's not a striated muscle, so the texture is fine and soft, and a wary friend gave it the thumbs-up after trying tongue for the first time.

The steak in the torta, however, was tough, as was the cubed pork (which I didn't finish in my admittedly very large gordita). Cooking something like carnitas instead would be only a small investment of time because the dish can essentially be left unattended in the oven overnight; and it would be a significant upgrade.

The beans. The bread and butter of Mexican food, and yet so overlooked. Beans don't need a lot of love, but they do love salt, and they certainly need it here. Skip the mole; the sauce had an unpleasant bitter, astringent quality (like maybe too much cocoa or cinnamon?). I had to pass on the Coctel de la Vida after my obligatory taste; the texture of this seafood menagerie reminded me too much of Swedish Fish.

The chorizo scramble, or huevos con chorizo, was scorched. They were out of tamales. But hey, there are several dozen other options.

If cheap, filling food is what Happy Grill is after, it has succeeded. For some diners, it will be enough. But Happy Grill needs to find a niche that will keep more people coming back to the busy yet somewhat inconvenient corner of East Washington and East Johnson.

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