210218GLORIAS

During a recent visit to Gloria’s Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Sun Prairie, Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin was awed by the carne asada a la Tampiquena. The dish, topped by an enormous jalapeno pepper, featured steak, beans, pico de gallo and chorizo—each of which represented some part of the land near the region the dish was created.

SUN PRAIRIE

It’s always hard to know what to expect when a successful local restaurant opens a second location on the other side of town or in a nearby community. Will the formula translate, or will resources be stretched and the food suffer?

The Ugalde family, which has been operating the Madison-based Gloria’s Mexican Restaurant for more than a decade on the city’s far-west side, took the plunge last summer and opened its second restaurant in Sun Prairie.

From what we can tell, family members have done a great job of making delicious traditional Mexican food look easy. It helps that the expansive menu at both places is the same (this is a good thing).

The newer Gloria’s feels like an appropriate fit in the sprawling strip-mall subdivision section of Sun Prairie. The interior, while smallish, is bright, colorful and inviting with attractive paintings adorning the walls.

A recent Saturday evening visit found the place “packed” by pandemic standards. Patrons were appropriately spaced, and staff was diligently hawking social-distancing rules—even asking some patrons waiting for curbside orders to vacate spaces that put them too close to others.

Interestingly, Gloria’s stakes its rep on its margaritas, which, while certainly delicious, are a much harder sell in the middle of a pandemic because getting them to go is essentially a no-go. Luckily, there’s at least a little room to enjoy them on-site, and the food more than takes up the slack.

Almost every traditional Mexican entrée option is represented here, but if you’re smart, you’ll start—and maybe complete your meal—with a massive plate of Gloria’s fajitas ($16.99).

No less than four types of grilled meat (steak, chicken, shrimp and chorizo pack the to-go container, and it doesn’t matter whether you choose to cherry-pick them individually into the house-made tortillas or mix and match to star a flavor circus, you have more than enough for seconds and thirds. Grilled cactus provides texture but not much taste. Then again, with the spices on the grilled meat, no additional taste is even necessary.

The shrimp that fuels one fourth of the fajita- fest is less successful when folded into the Nachos a la Mar ($12.99). The pile of chips looks massive, purportedly packed with shrimp and crab, but the seafood gets lost in the cheese sauce, guac and pico de gallo. You might as well just enjoy the chips straight up ($1.99) and add your favorite dip or condiment for a much more reasonable price.

For most places, the concept of enchiladas suiza ($11.99) involves Swiss cheese and a spicy green, tomatillo-based sauce. At Gloria’s, the recipe involves neither, instead focusing on the “creamy” piece of the equation.

Chicken is subbed out for seafood (shrimp and crab) and topped with a squirt of white crema. They’re delicious, but they’re definitely not what you’ve been trained to expect. As with most of the entrees, they are served with smooth and flavorful refried beans and an enormous pile of slightly less flavorful Mexican rice.

Other traditional options were strong. The ground beef chimichanga ($11.99) was sizable and crispy, just the way you’d expect.

As with the fajita plate, specialty dishes such as the carne asada a la Tampiquena ($15.99) impress with their size and grilled flavor. It’s one of Mexico’s most popular dishes, and traditionally all the ingredients on the plate, from the steak to the beans, pico and chorizo, represent some part of the land near the place where the dish was created. We have no idea what the massive, cucumber-sized jalapeno pepper that topped it was meant to represent, but it sure was delicious.

Madison and its surrounding communities have been fortunate to see the wave of traditional Mexican restaurants grow over the past 10 years. It’s even better when the talented ones replicate and expand.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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