"Even my Diet Coke was awful."

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[Photos: Robyn Lee]

At Serious Eats, we eat an awful lot of meals we don't tell you about. And usually, if there's nothing to recommend, we keep our mouths shut. Why review an unremarkable restaurant with mediocre food? There's no reason to waste your time or ours.

But every once in awhile, we find a spot so egregiously awful that we simply have to write it up. To save you from making the same mistake we did. To spare your stomach and your wallet and your schedule. So today, we present you the most laughably terrible lunch we've eaten in ages—at Lucy's Cantina Royale.

Let's get one thing straight; we didn't expect this geographically confused Baja-Tex-Cali-Mex restaurant to be particularly good. Factor in my Californian "This isn't real Mexican!" snobbery and a few gushing PR emails, and we weren't particularly optimistic. But we try to eat as widely as possible, and just a five-minute walk from our office, Lucy's deserved a shot.

We should have known better. There are four Rules of Restaurants I have yet to disprove:

  • If a restaurant refers to itself as a "concept," the food's probably not very good.
  • If a restaurant is at 34th and 8th, the food's probably not very good.
  • If a restaurant has Slushie machines behind the bar, the food's probably not very good.*
  • If the waitresses are wearing distractingly skimpy outfits, the food's probably not very good.

And we'll add a fifth, on the basis of this lunch alone: If a restaurant has the charming pronouncement "Tequila makes your clothes fall off!" stenciled over the bar... the food's probably not very good.

Five strikes against Lucy's before we even sat down. And it sure as hell didn't get better from there. (The fact that it set us back $66 didn't help, either.) A comedy of errors, after the jump.

*The one exception: Momofuku Noodle Bar. If you have another, bring it on.

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We started with I Love Lucy's Guacamole House Chips ($9). "Hazen has refined classic Tex Mex style dishes like chips and salsa and tacos for Lucy's menu," the press release told us. But can they be called "house chips" if the house doesn't make them? If these were made fresh, they were made fresh two days ago. I was tempted to dash out and grab a bag of Tostitos from the Duane Reade next door; they have a better flavor and crunch. The guacamole was fine, if unmemorable—it's really hard to mess up mashed avocado—though the pico de gallo on top was bitter and astringent.

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This is how you make a good quesadilla: 1. Take a fresh tortilla 2. Load it up with tasty cheese 3. Oil and salt the outside 4. Cook until melted.

This is how you make a bad quesadilla: 1. Take a stale tortilla 2. Load it up with cheese and limp, rubbery steak bits 3. Soak in oil and crust in salt 4. Cook for a few moments, leaving cheese cold and unmelted.

Guess which path they followed? My dad, a block of yellow cheddar, and our old microwave make a superior quesadilla. And for the $12 charged here, he could probably make 40.

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A pineapple scallion pork burrito ($11), starting off handicapped by a gluey flour tortilla, was made with what looked like Uncle Ben's rice and a pineapple mixture so sweet it tasted right out of the Dole can. So un-porky was the pork that we'd referred to it as "the chicken burrito" before we consulted the menu a second time and remembered what meat we were eating.

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Chipotle skirt steak tacos ($10) came three to an order, housed in wan, frayed tortillas, with chewy clumps of unseasoned meat and an anemic green glue dubbed an "avocado crema" but more reminiscent of mayonnaise on St. Patrick's Day.

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Yucca fries ($4) were the only thing worth a second bite; how terrible could any starch fried into oblivion be? But stiff and barely above room temperature, they'd clearly spent some time under a warming lamp. Come on, guys; the room was almost entirely empty. Fries can't be fried to order?

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Charred corn ($4) is almost always a side worth ordering. But here, the kernels didn't pop on first bite; they slid, and wilted, and squished unappealingly. We're guessing that ear had been cooked yesterday. An ambiguous cheesey substance slunk off and puddled, cold and lonely, on the side.

We thought about trying the Apple Pie Burrito, up there on the display with "Rice Y Beans" and "Chihuahuas in a Poncho," but we'd lost our appetites. Even my Diet Coke tasted off—syrupy, chemical, almost bubble-free. As the last unfinished plate of food was cleared, we shook our heads sadly. Serious Eats etiquette dictated we bring back leftovers for those still in the office, but we didn't bother. "I wish we'd gone to Taco Bell," sighed Ed.

There are plenty of bad Mexican restaurants in this world, but few so audacious as to charge this much. Lucy's is set up to prey on hapless commuters stranded at Penn Station. The signs, the drink machines, and the short-skirted waitresses all made clear that this was a margarita bar serving meals, not a restaurant serving drinks. But frankly, I can't imagine wanting this food even after three or four stiff margs. Proper drunk food should be hot and greasy and satisfying—not meager, pricey, and barely warmed over. I'd take a plate of street meat any night. And I wouldn't have to fork over a few twenties for it.

On our way back to the office, we counted off the places we'd rather have eaten—Brother Jimmy's BBQ. Uncle Nick's Greek Cuisine. The pretzel cart on 31st and 8th. We wanted our lunch back.

I'd laugh—if I didn't feel so queasy.

Lucy's Cantina Royale

1 Penn Plaza, New York NY 10119 (at 34th and 8th; map)
212-643-1270
lucyscantinaroyale.com

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