RIP Mad Mex Oakland, you gritty, pitch-black, perfect restaurant | Pittsburgh City Paper

RIP Mad Mex Oakland, you gritty, pitch-black, perfect restaurant

click to enlarge RIP Mad Mex Oakland, you gritty, pitch-black, perfect restaurant
Photo: Courtesy of Mad Mex
Mad Mex in Oakland
Raise your hand if you were in this dumb but totally worth-it situation at least once:

It's 7 p.m. on a sweaty summer night. You're out with your friends, and you're all starving, but you refuse to eat dinner — not yet, anyway. You just hang out somewhere and drink and starve until 11 p.m. when Late Night Happy Hour at Mad Mex finally begins.

You hightail it to Atwood to binge on cheap margaritas and half-price food until the wee hours, and then stumble home and fall asleep with just the right amount of San Fran sauce burning inside you — a perfect Pittsburgh Saturday night.

My late-night Mex era was back in the day when Mad Mex's Oakland location was the only one in the city. It was the OG, and even as new locations sprouted up all over the region, it remained number one in my heart.

That is why it feels like a sock to the gut to learn that Mad Mex Oakland is closing for good.

There was, and continued to be, something special about the original. Mad Mex Oakland was a gritty, loud, comically pitch-dark place. Even the youngins had to hold their menus up to the one little flickering candle on the table in order to read them. If they read the menu at all, that is. Many of us had our regular orders down, and the timider among us knew to really exaggerate "MILD! My-my, like mmmm!" to the server to make sure we actually got a not-too-spicy dish.

There weren't that many tables but somehow there was exactly one left for you and your friends, or, miraculously, there were just enough seats available at the tiny bar. It was crowded, but somehow, everyone fit.

Mad Mex Oakland was where the cool kids hung out. This was especially true when I attended high school in the '90s, feeling so adult just breathing the same air as Pitt students for as long as I could before curfew. When I was in college or living in other cities as a young adult, it was always the first place I wanted to go when my plane touched down. It wasn't scene-y — no one was there to be seen — it was more like a hideout from the less fun things in life: deadlines, exes, holiday family drama.

And that vibe never changed even as we all aged right alongside the big Burrito restaurant group, which opened brightly-lit Mad Mex dupes all over, including deep in the suburbs and well beyond Pittsburgh. Most of those locations — at least the ones I've been to — are much more family-friendly, with kids menus and all, and personally, I'm thankful. There's so much elbow room, and many even have parking lots. I need a much earlier happy hour these days anyway, and the staff is always very kind about my kids spilling rice and beans all over the floor. Most importantly, it's perfectly acceptable for me to sip on a giant, candy-colored margarita with a toddler on my hip.

The Oakland spot wasn't really set up for children (I'm told by a former staffer there was exactly one high chair in the place) but that's why we loved having it in our back pockets. On those rare occasions when the babysitter was booked and it was just grown-ups, it felt like the old days to squeeze into that narrow Atwood location and down cervezas in the dark.

This is why I can't help but be heartbroken that the Mad Mex of my youth — and my more recent once-or-twice-a-year late nights out — is gone.

Of course, it's not like we're really saying goodbye. A bajillion Mad Mex locations are still pouring margaritas and serving up Wing-o-Ritos a-plenty. We'll be OK.

But check on your local Xennial friends today who grew up on Atwood, along with pretty much anyone who went to college in Oakland in the last few decades. We're pouring a Big Azz one out.