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Published: Thursday, 5/14/2009

Restaurant review: Cinco de Mayo ***

The recent celebrations for Cinco de Mayo - often little more than an excuse to drink Coronas and wear sombreros around these parts - are over, but the name lives on in North Toledo. It's hard to miss, actually, thanks to the wildly bright colors of the restaurant that borrowed its moniker from the Mexican holiday.

But as anyone who's ever had a burrito knows, it's what's inside that counts. Cinco de Mayo - the restaurant, not the holiday celebrating May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army defeated much larger French forces - gets that.

The proof is in the taco.

I mean this literally. While the menu is mostly solid from start to finish, a couple of items rise above that to delicious, thanks to the savory, well-flavored meats that fill them.

Consider the chimichangas, which we selected as part of a three-item combo ($9.99). Ours arrived filled with chunks of rich, tender beef that tasted as if it had been slow-cooked all day long. There's nothing flashy about such a dish, but my taste buds didn't care; they wanted more.

Then there's the taco loco ($8.99), which was crazy good. Its gigantic, perfectly fried shell fills an entire plate so I didn't miss the fact that it didn't come with the usual sides of beans and rice. Instead, it was loaded up with a mix of steak and chicken fajita meat, the juices blending splendidly with onions, bright hunks of green peppers, and sour cream.

The ground beef quesadilla ($3.50) had just the right amount of crispness, and you could actually taste the egg in the chile relleno ($3.25), a welcome change from some Mexican restaurants where everything is so covered in sauce and cheese that it all tastes the same.

Cinco de Mayo's menu is not unique in that it has generous portions and dozens and dozens of offerings riffing on traditional Mexican fare. It's also not the first to identify its dishes by number either, although if you look closely you will notice a few numbers that are missing (slow sellers that apparently were removed, according to our server).

Too bad it's also not alone in that some of the cuisine was merely pedestrian. The enchiladas were fine but the sauce lacked oomph. A dish called Yolanda ($9.99) - grilled chicken breast with sauteed onions, ranchero sauce, and cheese - didn't make much of an impression either. The same goes for the tamale ($1.99) we tried.

Desserts on the menu include churros (sugary, fried logs of dough) as well as fried ice cream, although the latter arrived disappointingly coated in a soft layer of corn flakes instead of fried.

Service varied at the restaurant, a converted Bob Evans whose wood paneling mixes with the new decor's psychedelic colors and in-your-face art. One night, just minutes after we were served margaritas and an appetizer of some deliciously heavy melted cheese and beef ($5.99), our dinners arrived at the table. On another visit, a quick lunch turned much longer when the server disappeared for extended periods.

But at least there was some good news delivered amid one of those droughts: Don't worry about asking for extra chips. The menu indicates a charge for the second basket, but times are too tough to limit them, we were told.

Now that's the spirit of Cinco de Mayo!

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com

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