A Tale of Two Mexican Restaurants  

One’s in a huge hotel on the Strip, the other’s in a gas station. Whose food is better?

Two tacos and a  chile verde plate from Chile Verde Express | Photo by Jon Estrada

Two tacos and a
chile verde plate from Chile Verde Express | Photo by Jon Estrada

Al’s Menu Picks

Chile Verde Express

  • Chile verde plate ($8)
  • Chicken fajitas ($8)

Hecho en Vegas

  • Tres quesos fundido ($12)

Remember that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? It’s generally good advice across the board, but it’s particularly important in the restaurant world. Take, for example, two Mexican places I recently visited.

No doubt there are certain snobs who would dismiss Chile Verde Express out of hand. It appears to have only one employee, so service can be interminably slow. There’s only room for a few people to sit and eat. And, oh yeah, did I mention it’s inside a gas-station convenience store?

But look around for a moment, and you’ll see encouraging signs. The store is well-stocked with Bimbo Bakeries snacks and citrus-flavored sodas. There’s a TV showing soccer matches. And the clientele is predominantly Mexican. If you’re looking for quality Mexican food, these are all good signs.

The casual counter at Chile Verde Express; ceviche from Hecho en Vegas | Photo by Jon Estrada

The casual counter at Chile Verde Express | Photo by Jon Estrada

The large menu, printed on the wall, has all the basics—tacos, tortas, burritos, enchiladas, nachos etc.—and nothing is priced over $8. My favorite dish so far is the chile verde plate: a large pile of pork shoulder that has been slow cooked in a green tomatillo sauce, then sprinkled with two types of cheese. The mildly spiced chicken fajitas are wonderful in large, fresh flour tortillas. (I haven’t tried the corn yet.) The chicken burrito could use some salsa on the side, but is packed with bright, crisp, green bell peppers. And the cheese enchiladas and beef tacos are both pretty solid. In fact, my only real disappointment was that they were out of chiles rellenos two days in a row.

Chile Verde Express isn’t fancy in either its setting or its menu, but it does offer some above-average Mexican food in a town where the offerings are limited.

By contrast, Hecho en Vegas is a large, flashy entry into the dining world with big names attached. It occupies the space that previously housed Diego in MGM Grand, but recently underwent a big-bucks renovation. And it’s a partnership with Tucson’s famed Flores family, whose restaurants include the 91-year-old El Charro Café. Moreover, Diego was once home to brilliant chefs such as Chris Palmeri of Naked City Pizza; Christina Olivarez, who is now corporate chef for a New York-based nutrition supplement company; and consulting chef Rick Bayless, so I’ve come to expect great things from the space. Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly impressed.

My first attempt to visit Hecho en Vegas was to sample their weekday happy hour (featuring 50 percent off all appetizers), but a basketball tournament left the bar too packed to find a seat. So my wife and I returned a few days later for dinner.

Our first dish was a very tasty order of queso fundido made with three cheeses and delicious smoked mushroom. But a pair of ceviches were mildly disappointing, with the shrimp version a bit too spicy and a citrus soy ahi tuna variety just a touch too sweet. And a bowl of posole was almost completely devoid of hominy, with the chef compensating by drowning it in cabbage.

Ceviche from Hecho en Vegas | Photo courtesy MGM Resorts International

Ceviche from Hecho en Vegas | Photo courtesy MGM Resorts International

I enjoyed a chile relleno, which used the same smoked mushrooms I liked in my starter. But I basically found an order of chicken enchiladas in a mole negro sauce inedible—confirming many people’s worst fears about mole.

Sure, many moles contain chocolate. But it’s supposed to be just one of dozens of flavors represented, and not overwhelmingly sweet. Hecho’s reminded me of Hershey’s syrup, with sugar overpowering everything else. To his credit, our server José (who was phenomenal throughout the meal) noticed I wasn’t eating it and took it off our bill.

In all fairness, Hecho is new and may simply need time to work out some recipes. But until it does, I’ll be sticking with the no-frills Chile Verde Express.

Chile Verde Express

8095 S. Rainbow Blvd., 260-7758. Open daily, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, $10-$20.

Hecho en Vegas

In MGM Grand, 891-3200. Open for dinner 5–10 p.m. Sunday–Thursday, 5–11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dinner for two $70-$120.


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