Off the Menu (2018)

Off the Menu comes pretty close to being a Hallmark film without actually being one. It follows the same predictable storyline and includes all the familiar character types – a guy with no direction falls for a single mother and chef with skills to die for – and even features Hallmark regular Jen Lilley. Lilley is in a supporting role, however, because a big difference between this and the movies she’s usually in is that Off the Menu stars people of color, lots of them. And I don’t mean in throwaway parts like the best friend or the boss or the woman who runs the cute patisserie on the corner. I mean a Latinx family anchors the story, characters speak Spanish like it’s no big deal, and the leading lady isn’t white. It’s not a great film, but if we’re putting this in the Hallmark/Lifetime/UPTV sphere of influence, and I am, I will take this over Love at the Summer Festival (not a real film, yet) or whatever dippy romance is on TV.

That said, this movie is nearly undone by its cookie cutter plot, saved only by its very appealing actors. I decided long ago that I’d watch Santino Fontana in anything, so this is me on duty. The actor brings loads of charm to his character, Joel, an Irish American heir to a Tex-Mex food chain who hates Mexican food and really anything with flavor. He shows up to work, does nothing, and collects a salary, but you can’t say he’s lazy. He’s training for a triathlon and he graduated law school; he just hasn’t figured out a way to apply these skills to anything useful in life. Things change when his girlfriend (Lilley) dumps him and his sister and boss, Stacey (Kristen Dalton), shuttles him off to New Mexico to collect new and “authentic” recipes to add to the Tortilla Hut menu.

Joel makes his way south from California and ends up in Villanueva, a pit stop in the middle of the desert. There’s a church, a local crafts shop, and Javiera’s little restaurant, the town’s raison d’être. Javiera (Dania Ramirez), aided by her mother, Cordelia (Maria Conchita Alonso), cooks up a delicious storm, and visitors throughout the state arrive by busload for a taste of her secret green chile menu. Her dodgy boyfriend, Kevin (Andrew Carter), organizes a New Mexico culinary tour and is responsible for some of those guests, but she’s definitely the talent between the two of them.

No one is in the mood to try new things and certainly not a new relationship, but Joel and Javiera bond after he gets drunk at the town festival and spies her secret chile patch. At least I think this is what happens because I can’t quite see past the many holes in the story to figure out how their relationship develops. It doesn’t build up through little moments but lurches from point to point. Before we know it, they’re sharing sexy cooking time and dancing on kitchen towels to mash tomatoes or something.

The finer points of this romance are lost, but the mood is there. Unlike Frozen’s dastardly Prince Hans, the character Fontana is most known for, Joel is easy to forgive. The actor doesn’t erase all of his character’s selfishness, but he allows for his better parts to overcome his less desirable qualities. I also enjoyed Ramirez, who contributes a lot of warmth to film. Javiera conforms too much to stereotype though and lacks an individual touch. She may be a proud, fiercely talented chef as well as a doting single mother, but I kept hoping for a little something unexpected to peek through Ramirez’s performance, and it never came. I suppose a little something does come by way of Javiera’s daughter, Sophia (Makenzie Moss), a silly, lovable whip of a girl.

With any luck, Hallmark will catch on and make a movie more like this one. I don’t object to the dopiness of it all, but I’m not eager for another story about two white kids romancing one another at the hometown apple festival or falling in love despite competing donut shops. We’ve seen enough Main Streets in the Pacific Northwest and New England, and I need the vibrant colors on display here, whether it’s in the form of an electric “Vatican guest room” or mouthwatering chile split.

Released: 2018
Prod: Bethany Cerrona, William Newman
Dir: Jay Silverman
Writer: Jennifer Goldson
Cast: Santino Fontana, Dania Ramirez, Mackenzie Moss, Maria Conchita Alonso, Andrew Carter, Kristen Dalton, Ian Reed Kesler, Kenzo Lee, Jen Lilley
Time: 96 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019