Location, location, location: that comes close to summing up what El Cotija has going for it.
An online search appears to turn up three locations in the Warner Robins area, including two near the intersection of South Houston Lake Road and Ga. 96. But those are long gone, now bearing for-rent signs; the remaining address is just across Margie Drive from the Houston County Galleria Mall, making it a handy stop before catching a movie.
But there are plenty of restaurants nearby, including other Mexican places. To stand out, El Cotija would need to excel in atmosphere, food or service. Unfortunately, our experience in two visits was of adequacy at best.
The first stop was on a Sunday afternoon, when the dining room was nearly empty. The seating is utilitarian booths and tables, with typical décor: sombreros and rural paintings on the walls, mariachi music on the stereo, and a big-screen TV showing sports.
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We turned to the menu, which does look promising in its scope. Prices are on the low side for dozens of combinations: burritos, tacos, tostadas and all the expected standards.
Appetizers are rather limited, but a large a la carte menu makes up for it. We tried guacamole to go with the complementary chips and salsa; it looked like store-bought processed green paste, but had a strong, fresh avocado taste -- better than it appeared. The same was true of the salsa, which looked like a few bits of onion in tomato sauce but turned out to be surprisingly spicy, and more flavorful than expected. It was heavy on cilantro, which pleased my friend.
After that, though, the flavor surprises dropped off. It seems like El Cotija has adjusted its traditional dishes for blander Georgia palates -- perhaps a wise move for some, but to us thwarting the purpose of “authentic” Mexican food.
For her main dish, my companion chose one of the many basic combos, with a beef burrito, enchilada and rice and beans. I tried the Guadalajara special: a tamale, two flautas, nachos with cheese and beans, topped with guacamole and sour cream. I chose shredded chicken instead of ground beef.
Entrée portions are generous. The highlight of mine was the tamale, which so often turns into a lump of hardened grease. This wasn’t too fatty at all, retaining a fresh sponginess that outshone the rest of the plate.
My friend’s beef burrito was flavorful, but the standout was -- of all things -- the humble refried bean. Those are easy to overcook, but hers, topped with plenty of cheese, were “fantastic.”
Her disappointment was the enchilada, disconcertingly chewy and in a sauce too sweet for her taste: “Almost fruity. It was odd.”
The main problem, however, was speed of service, which decreased precipitously as our visit lengthened. I asked for one refill of my weak unsweetened tea, and got a glassful of sweet tea instead. But our server disappeared before I could taste it, and didn’t come back. It took 10 minutes after we finished eating to get our check, and nearly as long after that to get it processed.
Maybe it was an off-day, we decided, so we went back for a weekday lunch. This time a large school group took up much of the dining room, but service started off better, with a friendly server suggesting we try the cheese dip as an appetizer. My friend wanted a chicken chimichanga, but only beef was listed; our server cheerfully made the substitution, and I went for the carne de puerco.
The chimichanga was huge and well-presented, but its appearance belied the bland taste. Mine came with plentiful tender pork -- but part of that was a big lump of fat, and the rest was nearly tasteless. The accompanying shredded lettuce and pickled jalapeños from a jar only confirmed the off-the-grocery-shelf impression.
And once again, service broke down after a promising start, even though the crowd cleared out. I was offered a choice of corn or flour tortillas, asking for the first but getting the second; and servers’ long disappearances resigned us to making do with what we had.
We had to flag down someone else’s server to pay our check, making El Cotija a gamble for a quick lunch.
El Cotija Mexican Restaurant
Address: 109 Margie Drive, Centerville
Phone: (478) 971-4031
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Payment: Cash, credit, debit. No checks.
Kids Menu: Yes
Noise Level: Medium
Health Rating: 90
Price range: $5.25-$13.25
Rating: 2 stars