Dinner & a Movie: MacGruber Will Now Blow Up This Mexican Restaurant"/>
The Dinner: Burrito and a margarita at El Malecón (formerly Las Margaritas, 1122 Post Alley).
The Screenplate: The basis for SNL's "MacGruber" sketch is the old TV show MacGyver, which ran from 1985-92, which is a confusing era. When did the '80s end? With Reagan's second term, the Berlin Wall tumbling, the election of Clinton as president, grunge, when? I would suggest MacGyver is just as significant a cultural milepost as any for the era. Its hero starts out as a Cold War superspy, then disappears with the first Bush regime. What happened to the guy? Well, Will Forte, who grew up in the '80s, revived the character on SNL as a hot-headed buffoon whose improvised weaponry (never guns!) and bomb-defusing techniques inevitably go awry. And now, of course, we have the movie, destined to do middling business at the box office. But, like Hot Tub Time Machine, it offers a wincing look back at the '80s. And while not as funny as the first Austin Powers movie, it's also about a secret agent transported forward in time, trying to cope with the changed sexual and political mores of a new age. MacGruber can't get his bearings in 2010. Fusion cuisine only confuses him; that's why he likes generic Mexican restaurants like El Malecón...Buried beneath the Seneca St. offramp from the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the old Las Margaritas was one of three ordinary local Mexican eateries sharing that name (another continues at 143rd and Aurora, and the third in Redmond). The downtown location, accessed by Post Alley or a staircase down from First Ave., was a popular lunch spot for office workers and an even more popular destination for happy hour after work. The food wasn't exceptional, but you could eat a lot of chips to offset the tequila. And the place was so big that it could easily accommodate office parties, birthdays, Cinco de Mayo parties, or gatherings to watch football or futbol.
Then, without warning, Las Margaritas disappeared, just like MacGruber. An era had ended. Only in the movie, it turns out, MacGruber isn't dead. Rather, he's been hiding out in Ecuador for 10 years, mourning his wife (Maya Rudolph) who was slain on their wedding day by evil nemesis Dieter Von Cunth (pudgy, ponytailed, self-pleased Val Kilmer), helping orphans, and honing his martial arts skills. In short, he's become a bearded, monastic recluse, rather like Rambo, only with a beer gut. He's brought out retirement by his former military commander ('80s signifier Powers Boothe) to retrieve a stolen nuclear missile--taken, of course, by Von Cunth.
But everyone believes MacGruber is dead! He was killed a decade earlier with his wife, right? It's written on his tombstone. But our hero digs up that grave, opens the casket, and finds his old uniform waiting for him: plaid shirt, stone-washed jeans, sensible hiking shoes, and fisherman's vest (with many, many pockets). MacGruber is back! Only now there's an Internet, smartphones, iPods, and other technologies he doesn't understand. His fashion sensibility, like his mullet-ish hairdo, is dangerously out of date. Mike--yes, MacGruber has a first name--doesn't know what to do! He needs some calm and reassurance in this crazy world. He needs a drink, pronto. (MacGruber learned Spanish in Ecuador.)
And that's where El Malecón comes in. The restaurant's name, translated from the Spanish, might be strand or esplanade, a public promenade near the sea. Well, deafened by the cars on the Viaduct above, looking west toward Elliott Bay, you can almost imagine you hear the sea from Post Alley. But step inside, MacGruber, and it's like the '80s never ended! The old Corona and Tecate posters, the paper napkins and linoleum-topped tables, the mariachi music in the background, the soccer games and telenovelas on the TV screens. Wait, MacGruber asks, why are the TV screens so thin? We'll explain that another time...
First let's order the chicken burrito grande ($9.29) and a margarita on the rocks, no salt ($5.25). The drink comes in a stemmed glass, which we don't like, but that's the way they were served when the place was called Las Margaritas. Some things never change, MacGruber. And the chips aren't oversalted or greasy. The salsa might be a tad watery, but at least the guacamole tastes fresh. And while we're waiting for dinner, MacGruber, tell us about your broken heart.
Bad enough that Von Cunth killed his wife (as we see in gory flashback), but her best friend was the maid of honor; and she, too, was traumatized like MacGruber. Ten years later, when he finds Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig), she also seems lost in an indeterminate '80s/'90s past. Surrounded by ceramic owls and writing lounge music on a Casio keyboard, Vicki has awesome feathered bangs like Farrah Fawcett used to wear on Charlie's Angels. (But that's a '70s TV show, you ask? Remember that Fawcett remained on the program from 1976-80, and it lasted, even without her, to the end of the 1981 season. So it shares a decade with MacGyver.)
But wait, here comes our burrito. The old chicken expresso burrito served at Las Margaritas has now been rechristened the burrito grande, but it tastes about the same. Decent portion size, salsa not too spicy, not drowning in sauce, and the ingredients haven't been sitting too long in the back of a warm truck. It's not gourmet, but neither is MacGruber. The burrito tastes like something we've eaten before, rather like the movie.
The whole stolen-nuke plot, Kilmer's ponytail (double '80s nostalgia points there), MacGruber being kicked off the case not once but twice--the movie embraces cliché. The plot is TV-familiar, just as the old MacGyver show was successful by repeating its formula week after week. So here we have shootouts and big orange fireballs, Kilmer ensconced in a luxurious lair, and a near-final scene in which MacGruber must, yes, defuse the missile as the LED clock counts down.
Yet the chili pepper in the sauce is MacGruber's manic swings between arrogance and sniveling insecurity. In a moment of weakness (and there are several), he sobs, "I don't know what I'm doing, and everybody hates me!" He feels threatened by Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) and lashes out at anyone who contradicts his faulty reasoning. ("Seeing what happens isn't the same as making it up as we go along.") He's selfish and petty. He refuses to tip. In a changing world, he clings to the safety of the '80s (especially its soft rock), even as his spectral wife tells him, "You have to move on with your life."
So while we miss Las Margaritas, we have to admit that El Malecón works just fine. Taking the long view, MacGyver wasn't great TV, the MacGruber sketch and movie aren't tremendously funny, and no one really expects fantastic Mexican food. Sometimes mediocrity tastes just fine. You're okay, MacGruber. And where did you get that fishing vest? All those pockets seem really practical.