San Angel Inn, the restaurant inside the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, has an ambience I’ve always found appealing. It is, essentially, a festively decorated plaza in some small village, a village across a waterway from an Mayan pyramid and a volcano that smolders ominously in the not-far-enough distance.
It’s a perennial nighttime scene, affected by its location inside the pavilion. The dining area is set up next to the waterway, which transports people in boats on their way to the pavilion’s themed ride, Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros. All the elements work nicely together to produce a terrific atmosphere.
I wish they’d spend a little effort on making the food better.
The menu at least stays true to Mexican cuisine, rather than pandering to Americans’ concept of it, which has been muddled by Tex-Mex, Southwestern and even San Francisco-style burrito restaurants. Here you’ll find no fajitas, an American invention, or cheesy quesadillas. You will receive a conical basket filled with tortilla chips, accompanied by two salsas -- an American tradition that even authentic Mexican restaurants must follow.
That’s the last thing you’ll get for free. Everything else you’ll pay for, and you’ll pay way too much.
On a recent lunch visit I ordered the sopa Azteca, described on the menu as a traditional tortilla soup, and conchinita pibil, a sort of pulled pork entree. I had unwittingly ordered two-thirds of the items offered under the heading “traditional Mexican lunch,” which also includes a flan dessert. My server pointed this out to me and asked if I didn’t want to get the three-courses for $25. Seeing that the soup was $7 and the conchinita $17, I did a little quick math and decided to go for it.
The soup was delivered grandly with the tortilla strips and a few precious chunks of avocado and a dried pasilla pepper in the bowl over which the server poured the broth from a small pitcher. She may as well have popped the top on a can of Swanson’s beef broth and poured it in the bowl for all the flavor that it had. It couldn’t have been blander.
The conchinita wasn’t much more flavorful. Although it was advertised as having been marinated with anchiote seeds, beer, garlic and orange juice, its taste was flat-lined and as monochromatic as its dark reddish-brown color. The meat was accompanied by three soft corn tortillas in a paper envelope, and fried plantains, a side dish rarely seen with Mexican dishes in the U.S.
The quality of neither the soup nor the entree was anywhere near the asking price.
The flan was much more enjoyable, smooth textured and with a rich vanilla flavor. But maybe I was just glad that I was essentially getting the dessert for only a dollar more.
Service was timid but friendly.
I had a short wait for a table, so I stopped in at the relatively new tequila bar, which offers a place for guests to try a variety of tequilas and tequila-based drinks. It’s not exactly attached to the restaurant, but it offers a bar and lounge setting that was long missing from San Angel Inn. (The classic margarita is just fine, by the way, although something is missing in a drink served in a plastic cup.)
By the way, the Cantina de San Angel, the outdoor venue next to the World Showcase lagoon at the Mexico pavilion, is currently undergoing renovations (I think the technical term is demolition). In its stead, the rather elaborate kiosk from the Food and Wine Festival remains for those needing a quick taco or a walk-away margarita.