If you've ever been to Mexico, you know what real Mexican food tastes like. Sure, there are tacos and enchiladas, but the flavors and colors and textures offer a much wider range than just tortillas, chicken, and beef in various combinations. There are many Mexican restaurants in town, but the common mistake they make is that they put out bland food with no character, covered in plastic-tasting cheese. In my opinion, there are only a few local places that qualify as good Mexican food.
It took me a long time to actually decide to visit Mas Amigos on Springfield, east of the tracks, next to EuroMart. I stopped in to order take-out and brought it back to work. I opened up my treasure and at first glance was not really stunned by the tacos covered in cilantro and onions, pale rice, and light brown refried beans. I also ordered a single tamal (this is the first restaurant in town I've seen that doesn't pander to English-speakers' habit of calling it a "tamale"). There were no chips included, which was disappointing since I'd heard they were good. The rice and beans were, unfortunately, not spectacular. They're tasty, but with the other items on the plate, just a waste of good space in your stomach. The tacos, however, were delicious. After squeezing a wedge of lime on my chorizo and al pastor tacos, the bright flavors hit me and I was taken back. The corn tortillas are soft but slightly chewy, providing the perfect amount of structure to carry the generous amount of filling. There's little chance of bursting here.
The tamal was easily the best I've eaten at a restaurant. The texture of the masa was light, not greasy, and very tasty. The chicken hidden inside (they only offer chicken) was tasty and moist. I hope they'll expand their meat selection in the future. They serve their tamales with a smear of a light cream sauce, which is good, but is nothing compared to the green and red salsas they offer.
The salsas are homemade, and have bright, bold flavors that enhance everything you put them on. The red tastes of dried chiles and has a good amount of heat, but it's not overpowering. The green features tomatillos, avocado, and cilantro. Its creamy texture is an ideal foil for the grilled meats and chewy tortillas you'll be enjoying. Try them on everything.
The next time I went in, I had a torta. The torta is a type of Mexican sandwich that features some sort of meat and piled with toppings including lettuce, avocado, beans, cheese, onions, tomato, mayo, and jalapeños. The bread is lightly grilled, top and bottom, to give a little crunch and structure to the sandwich. With the large portion you get, this thing would fall apart without toasting it first, and even still, some of the bits will come loose. The first torta I tried was their combinada with chorizo and carne asada (seasoned steak). Most Mexican places that serve steak on their tacos serve little greyish pebbles of meat that are nearly inedible. Mas Amigos serves nicely browned bits of carne that taste like beef and don't have the same gristly chew that other places serve up. The second torta I had (pictured) was with their al pastor. Their al pastor is flavorful on its own, but not so bold as to overcome the rest of the ingredients.
These next few times I ate in the restaurant, and learned why people raved about the chips. Fried in-house, they are crunchy, but light. Sometimes they separate into thin layers, which I love. If you like thin and/or crunchy chips, do yourself a favor and try these. They serve them with a basic tomato salsa, which is good, but I like to dribble on some of the roja and verde salsas I mentioned earlier.
They offer a wide selection of entrees, from the basic tacos and tamales to other larger entrees, like pollo ranchero. I tried their enchiladas, which used another delicious homemade salsa and cheese that tasted like, well, cheese. They offer vegetarian options, like veggie fajitas and chiles rellenos (listed on the menu as chiles poblanos).
The parking is a little awkward, with a few spaces on the side, a few spaces on the street, and more parking "around back". They have some outdoor seats if you like to eat under el cielo. They are bound to have whatever you like to drink with Mexican food, from Coke products, to horchata, Mexican sodas, like Jarritos, or Mexican beer and tequila. I haven't tried their margaritas yet, but I plan on going back to find out.
Mas Amigos is located at 40 E. Springfield Ave. in Champaign.