I’d like to think of myself as a discerning fellow.
Certainly, I’d like to think my taste is immaculate, my standards high.
Movies, television, music, food, wine, books.
It’s nice to think of yourself as having a sophisticated palette for such things, to be refined.
I am not those things.
It turns out, I’m fairly easy to please fellow. I have a certain level of baseline optimism that as long as something isn’t objectively bad, it’s usually good enough.
I like Marvel movies and classic rock.
And I like most restaurants, even many of the ones other people like to look down their noses at.
Pizza? I subscribe to the idea that most pizza is good pizza and some pizza is great pizza. But it’s pretty hard to find bad pizza.
Same – in most cases – with Mexican food. Fajitas are wonderful. Steak fajitas. Chicken fajitas. Shrimp fajitas. In fact, don’t burn it and we’re going to be good.
And so, friends, you’re about to read what is perhaps the rarest thing in the world from me … a somewhat negative review.
I hesitate, even now, to fully commit to the dark side because I can find some positives at No Way Jose’s Cantina in Gatlinburg.
Certainly, we have some fond family memories there.
But if I’m going to be truthful, and I think you want me to be, if you’re going to go out for dinner in Gatlinburg – or Pigeon Forge for that matter – you can do better.
Where is No Way Jose’s Cantina in Gatlinburg?
No Way Jose’s Cantina in Gatlinburg is located just across from the Ripley’s Aquarium. We started going there when Sofia, my eldest daughter, was little.
She enjoyed the bright, colorful atmosphere and the chance to be daring and, gasp, try the salsa.
Sofia’s palette at the time was not particularly advanced. She’d eat a cheese quesadilla and some rice. Dip a few chips into the modestly spicy salsa and think of herself as really pushing the culinary envelope.
Leslie and I would get the fajitas, or maybe a chimichanga. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad and it was a nice family outing.
Then, on a trip to Memphis, we took Sofia to a place where they made guacamole at the table. She got to help and so she had to try it. Once she discovered that she loved it, she started trying new things at other Mexican restaurants.
The truth is, she outgrew No Way Jose’s, but we weren’t ready to give it up.
Is No Way Jose’s Cantina Gatlinburg part of a chain?
In 2020, No Way Jose’s – which is part of the otherwise excellent KBS Restaurant Group – decided to expand out of Sevier County. They arrived in our hometown with a dual-themed location. Half of the restaurant was a No Way Jose’s. The other half is Holston’s Kitchen.
No Way Jose’s didn’t last very long. If you wanted to be one of the best places in Morristown, you’d need to bring your A-game. And it was not one of the best Mexican restaurants in Morristown, not by a long shot. That half of the restaurant is now closed but Holston’s appears to be going strong.
There’s also one in Pigeon Forge where we had a bad experience once but chalked it up to being unlucky.
Over the years, we’ve tried to give No Way Jose’s every opportunity to win us back.
However, the fact of the matter is this … it’s just a bit bland.
It lacks the spice – and I don’t necessarily mean heat – of what you’d expect from a Mexican restaurant, even one that caters to Gatlinburg tourists.
The website promises authentic Mexican food but several times now, over several menu items, it’s been just a step above some fast food places.
When the refried beans are about as flavorful as the entrée, you’ve got issues.
Part of this, I suspect, is that Sofia’s palette isn’t the only one that has grown. Over the years, we’d been used to pretty basic Mexican food. Recently, especially where we live in Morristown, the options have gotten significantly better.
We’ve gotten a little spoiled – or maybe we’ve just learned how much we were missing out on.
What’s on the menu at No Way Jose’s?
So what do they have?
There’s no reinvention of the wheel. Nachos, burritos, tacos, chimichangas. Throw in an enchilada and some fajitas and it’s basically the same menu you can find at Mexican restaurants all over the United States. For the kids, there are cheese quesadillas.
Honestly, I don’t hate their shredded beef.
It’s one of those places where you hear more about the reasonable price and large portions or the great experience than you do the good food.
So the problem isn’t necessarily the menu. It’s in the execution. The highlight of the meal shouldn’t be the Mexican rice or the pico de gallo.
Look, I don’t want to put anybody down. If you think this is one of the best Gatlinburg restaurants, more power to you.
My taste buds just happen to disagree.
What to order at No Way Jose’s Gatlinburg
Ok. But we still want to go. What should we order?
Cerveza. Get a couple of drinks and some apps and you might get out OK.
The mixed drinks? You’d be better off going to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville down the street. And honestly, if you want beer, maybe go to Ole Red’s which is just around the bend. You can get some live music there anyway.
If you’re going to go with food, I’d say the fajitas.
The floor for any order of fajitas is still pretty high. In fact, it’s hard to mess up meat cooked and delivered to the table on a sizzlin’ hot skillet. They’re not going to be the most flavorful thing you’ve ever had, but you’re likely to walk out at least moderately satisfied with your meal.
Listen, the menu is full of a lot of restaurant buzz words. You’ll read about fresh California Haas avocados, No Way Jose’s famous steak and cilantro lime sauce. Or their own Baja sauce and salsa Fresca.
But it’s like when a restaurant’s menu gets all PR’d up and tries to sell you on the salad. Fresh ingredients? A bed of lettuce with your choice of dressing. Wait, is it iceberg lettuce? No, it’s fresh romaine? How fancy. No bonus points for that.
Tender steak? Oh good, we were afraid you’d go with the less traditional tough-as-a-piece of leather hunk of cow. Plump chicken breast? Has any menu ever promised dry, withered chicken breast? I don’t think so.
It’s not just lime, it’s fresh lime. Oh you have crispy chips? I wasn’t expecting that at all. You’ve wow’d me, No Way Jose’s.
The No Way Jose’s menu sounds fine with its generous helping and specialty drinks. But in the eating? It just comes up short.
Is No Way Jose’s worth it?
Here’s the big question … Is it worth it?
No. In my opinion, it’s not. But again, some may love it. Everything is subjective.
There are dozens of better dining options in and around Gatlinburg that will give you a better meal in the same ballpark price range. I hate to be Johnny downer on this one, but you can just do better without even having to walk that much further.
You’re on a Smoky Mountain vacation near downtown Gatlinburg, if you want great food or authentic Mexican cuisine, there are other options.
Should you go to No Way Jose’s Mexican Cantina?
In my opinion, no way.
Have you been to No Way Jose’s in Gatlinburg? Did you like it? Let us hear your review in the comments below.