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Que Rico: Bless this tasty Mexican mess

by J.J. O'Donoghue

In the spirit of creating fashionable statements that promptly wither out of mode (“Orange is the new black,” “Spring is the new summer”), here’s one for the list: In Osaka, “Tenma is the new Fukushima.” The two areas have much in common: Both fan out in warrens and lanes beneath the city’s elevated Loop Line, with Umeda Station as a midpoint ensuring a constant supply of the hungry, thirsty and weary; both embody the quintessential Osaka eat-till-you-drop spirit of kuidaore (among salarymen, anyway); and both are home to Que Rico, a popular Mexican hole-in-the-wall eatery.

Que Rico, which means “How Tasty,” is located in a feisty area north of Tenma Station and west of Tenjinsujibashi Shotengai, a seemingly never-ending covered arcade. Inside this triangle is an eclectic mix of establishments and cuisine: izakayas, snack bars, standing bars, hostess bars and a brew pub. Down one of these side streets is Que Rico protruding out onto the street and wrapped in vinyl sheeting.

Although there was, thankfully, not a sombrero in sight, the decor is most definitely pastiche Mexican. Posters of wrestlers dressed in leotards and wearing full face masks abound, as do medals of holy saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s kitsch, but no worse (or better) than your average Irish pub. The original Que Rico opened in Tenma, then expanded into the building next to it. After Tenma, it added two more outposts, one a piece in Umeda and Fukushima.

To expropriate (and misquote) a phrase often used by professional sports players: The meal was one of two halves. The first half was great, the second less so. My companion and I started with the rotisserie chicken dish, which is the reason most people go to Que Rico. You can order an entire bird or half of one. Unless you are dining alone, go all in. The bird comes divided into the breast, thighs, drumsticks and wings, and is served with potatoes, a salad of shredded cabbage with dressing, salsa and sour cream, plus a choice of either flour or corn tortillas — both freshly pressed. The platter is a host of colors and in the company of beer (try the Day of the Dead IPA), it’s delicious and messy. So concluded the first half.

For the second half we sampled nachos and nankotsu (cartilage) fried in habanero pepper, but these dishes lacked the firepower of the chicken.

Spice-wise, dishes are geared toward the temperate Japanese palette, but there’s hot sauce aplenty on the counter. There’s a good selection of beers, native and Mexican, as well as cocktails and wine. Que Rico is a good value restaurant, and the chicken is a standout dish — it just needs to up the ante elsewhere.

Ikeda-cho 8-4, Kita-ku, Osaka; 050-5868-5965; www.querico.jp; open daily 3 p.m.-12 a.m; nearest station Tenma; dinner around ¥3,000 including drinks; smoking OK; Japanese menu; English spoken.

J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.