210722JULIO

Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin picked up this order of chicken tinga enchiladas during a recent visit to Me & Julio in Fitchburg. Conklin notes the Tex-Mex eatery does a great job of balancing dishes from both its Mexican and American menus.

FITCHBURG

Not every place that tackles the Tex-Mex formula gets both sides of the equation right. Many fumble the first half of the equation, offering solid Mexican favorites but treating the American side as a bland afterthought—or, more to the point, something to serve younger kids intimidated by the sight of a stuffed chimichanga.

Me & Julio, a modest Tex-Mex place that has managed to thrive in a spot that—before its arrival in 2016—had become one of the Fitchburg area’s restaurant graveyards, avoids that misstep gracefully. There is plenty on both sides of the border to tempt and deliver.

There are two Me & Julio’s in the United States—one in Minnesota and one in Fitchburg. The interior has been opened up since the days when the building hosted the late and lamented La Paella, a feeling that is only emphasized by fewer tables, a clear nod to social distancing.

A wood and metal bar centers the restaurant, providing plenty of space and opportunity to sip some tequila or whiskey before ordering your dinner. But as inviting as it is, the best way to experience Me & Julio’s is on its impressive patio, complete with a fire pit that needs to be experienced if you’re there on a sunny summer evening.

This is a place where the inside says utilitarian, and the patio says upscale.

Instead of chips and salsa, you will get bowls of popcorn as your pre-meal munchie—and you will be surprisingly glad you did. Even though it is only the type that comes from a standard popcorn cart-style machine (no butter or other spices), it is crunchy and perfectly salted. An odd calling card for a Tex-Mex joint, to be sure, but it totally works.

Just don’t fill up on it, or you might miss out on some of the menu’s best options.

These include the chicken tinga enchilada ($12.99), which is spicy, flavorful and buried in a green sauce, white cheese and thick chunks of tomato and onion. The size of the ingredients and toppings gives each a chance to shine, which isn’t always true of enchilada plates.

Fajita lovers, meanwhile, have tons of options to suit their tastes. Steak, veggies, chicken and shrimp can be served solo on beds of grilled onions and peppers, or combined to give you a taste of each.

Your side options include traditional refried beans or borracho, (“drunken”) beans. While the latter sure sounds intriguing (beans soaked in beer? Sign us up!), our side container was more watery and less piquant than expected. Maybe stick with the more familiar option here.

The American half of the menu hews close to what you might expect, with a couple of notable exceptions.

These include a fish fry ($16.99) that is available daily rather than only on Fridays, and a plate of Cajun chicken and chorizo hash ($14.99) that links the two sides of the menu with a sizable dollop of chili con queso.

In a more mainstream vein, there are five burgers to tempt you—half-pound beasts with real heft and taste.

The cheese curd burger ($13.99), adorned with Ellsworth curds and a couple slices of smoked ham, is the most adventurous option you will find. The hickory burger ($13.49)—Me & Julio’s take on the bacon barbecue burger—doesn’t skimp on the bacon or the cheese. And fans of the never-ending spicy/crispy chicken sandwich craze will be pleased to meet the Diablo ($12.99), a fried or grilled chicken ‘wich spiced up with ghost pepper cheese and sriracha mayo.

One of Me & Julio’s signature items is Bang Bang Shrimp ($13.99), which anchors the appetizer menu. It’s not hard to understand the dish’s popularity: Five solid-sized shrimp are doused in a medium-to whoa! spicy sauce and served on a bed of lettuce.

While I take issue with the menu’s description of the shrimp as “crispy”—some places serve this dish with shrimp that are fried, but not here—the experience doesn’t suffer from it. If you would prefer to enjoy your bang-bang wrapped in a tortilla, that is an option, too ($15.99 for a plate of three). You can also opt for chicken for one dollar less.

Between its tasty and familiar entrees and its welcoming environment—seriously, you need to enjoy some enchiladas on that patio—Me & Julio’s remains similar to the Simon and Garfunkel song for which it is named: timeless, familiar and easy to appreciate.

It’s like a friendly neighborhood joint without the noisy neighborhood. And in these post-pandemic times, that’s not something to undervalue.

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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