There is No Ahhs and The Emerald Lounge is… Sapphire?
You’re out following the Yellow Brick Road, and decide to stop for the night. You pull your farmhouse off the to the side of the tornado you’ve been riding, find a nice independent hotel (a former Holiday Inn) in sleepy little Mission Viejo, make sure you didn’t accidentally park on any wicked witches, and decide it’s a good place to crash for the night. Not wanting to go back out, you decide to hit the Taco Tuesday right here in the hotel at the Emerald Lounge. Sorry, Toto. The tacos are going to taste like you’re still in Kansas, and the lounge isn’t Emerald.
To be fair, a moderately priced hotel lounge is not the place you’d expect to find great food, even by cheap Taco Tuesday standards. Hotel lounges in this price range are usually more about convenience and comfort, and you usually pay for that convenience with higher prices and food that merely satisfies the hunger pangs, not the palate. But they somehow manage to put together a decent bargain for Taco Tuesday (5pm-9pm) at the not-so-Emerald Lounge.
The Lay of the Land
Located on La Paz just to the west of I-5, the Emerald Lounge resides inside the Hills Hotel, an upgraded former Holiday Inn. There is a full bar, large screen televisions broadcasting sporting events, a dance floor, and occasional live entertainment. The ceiling above the bar is trimmed with blue LED lighting, so why it is not called the Sapphire Lounge eludes us. There was plenty of seating, but there were only about a half dozen people inside, and half of those were seated at the bar. The night we were there, all of the patrons seemed to be guests of the hotel. We found a quiet table away from the noise of the televisions and some adults speaking loudly to some children in an attempt to keep those children from disturbing the people around them.
The Emerald Lounge offers $1.50 street tacos: your choice of chicken or steak. They come topped with cilantro and onions and are accompanied by a couple of small containers of red and green sauce, and a lime, just like one of those little street cart taco vendors would sell down on the corner, just not in neighborhoods like Mission Viejo. In fact, we kept trying to spot the man behind the curtain to see if the food came from the kitchen, or if they had indeed hired a taco cart wizard and hid him in a backroom to work his magic just for Taco Tuesday.
For happy hour from 5-7pm, Monday thru Thursday, the Emerald Lounge also offers pulled pork tacos they sell 2/$5. Yes, you read that right: Pulled pork, not carnitas.
The chicken taco at the Emerald Lounge was better than a lot of the chicken tacos we have tried at so called “authentic” taco places, but we still didn’t like them enough that we’d come back and order more. As chicken tacos often do, they tended toward the dry side, but were very edible. They had flavor, something usually lacking in most chicken tacos, just not enough to stand out from the flavor of the tortilla which is actually the one thing we really liked about the tacos here.
The steak tacos are where to spend your hard-earned taco bucks. They also have good flavor, and authentic taco cart taste, although, they, too, were also a little drier than we prefer. It’s really a shame when nearly all the life-giving juice is cooked out of beef, but they were still our favorite of the two, hands down, and like the chicken were served on a wonderfully tasty tortilla.
Pulled Pork Tacos
So, we have the chicken and steak tacos doing their best impersonation of being served from an authentic street taco cart, and then there’s what has to be some Midwest gringo in the kitchen whipping up these pulled pork tacos, who probably pronounces tortilla with the same “illa” as in gorilla. It’s hard to believe the pork tacos come from the same kitchen. They are so lacking in spice, you could add ketchup to them and improve their Scoville rating! Served with a side of sour cream, and some diced up tomatoes doing a poor impersonation of pico de gallo, these pulled pork tacos are so Midwest, they even come with a sprig of parsley as if they were ordered at an IHOP or Denny’s, instead of being cooked by the same person who prepped the street tacos.
On the plus side, so are the tacos… on the plus side. They’re considerably bigger than the chicken and steak tacos—and more filling, but that’s about the only positive we can offer. Well, that and the fact that they didn’t try to pass them off as carnitas. You just can’t get tacos anymore gringo without traveling to the Midwest where I’ve had some of the most bland and tasteless “Mexican meals” I’ve ever eaten. That just doesn’t fly here, where we are only 90 miles north of the Mexican border.
Beyond the Tacos
The $5 classic margaritas for Taco Tuesday hit the spot. Other drink specials for our favorite day of the week include Pacifico and Coronas for $4 as well as tequila shots for $4. Shots of Patron are $6. The Emerald Lounge also has a decent selection of beers as well. Domestic beers are $4 and imports are $5 during happy hour. The lounge is a good place to unwind at the end of the day, with cheap eats to fill you up as you decompress. There is an extra bonus if you’re staying at the hotel and don’t have to drive home afterward. But if you do need to drive, your designated driver will be happy to know there are refillable fountain Coke products available for $3.
Should You Go to Emerald Lounge for Taco Tuesday?
Let me back up a second. I’ve used the word authentic, and compared them to the tacos you’d get from a taco cart—the teak and chicken tacos at least. While there are some great taco carts out there, the primary appeal, is they are cheap impulse buys that fill you up on the go satisfying your belly more than your craving for tacos. The tacos at the Emerald Lounge do precisely that.
Bottom line: There is no wizard in the Emerald Lounge conjuring amazing tacos out of thin air. Only a man behind a curtain that peddles convenience much like the taco cart on the corner. However, if there’s a game on and you’re looking for a place to eat and drink on the cheap while you root on your favorite sports team, this isn’t a bad choice.
But, if you’re looking for epic tacos, or at the very least, a taco that will do more than just fill your belly, keep heading down the Yellow Brick Road to find flavor that isn’t as flat or as dry as Kansas. So, go ahead and click your ruby slippers three times, because you aren’t gonna find “ahs” at the Emerald Lounge, but it does beat heading back out on the road to battle flying monkeys to obtain an alternative.
One more thing. If you do go, ask them why the Emerald Lounge isn’t Emerald. It’s killing me and I forgot to ask. “If I only had a brain…”
Emerald Lounge Gallery: