And This Little Froggy Had a Frozen Margarita

Waitstaff perform on stage at the Times Square Señor Frog's. The chain is known for its random atmosphere with DJs who bark orders for tourists to join in on a sing-along or pay attention to a TV for a short YouTube clip, or for waiters and bartenders to bust a move. Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

For many years, there sat on my writing desk a photograph of myself and my mother at an outpost of the chain restaurant Señor Frog's in Cancún, Mexico. The picture is from 1997, when I was 18. We are on our first foreign vacation since leaving the Soviet Union in 1989, and have wandered into Señor Frog's because it is obviously friendly to Americans and just as obviously inexpensive: We know that expensive establishments rarely advertise themselves via anthropomorphic amphibian. At Señor Frog's, I proceed to imbibe more alcohol than I have ever imbibed before, paying no attention to the composition or quality of the drinks I am consuming. Drunk-kid-in-a-candy-store is a fairly apt description of the scene, especially given the saccharine concoctions. When the DJ orders the tipsy tourists, red from long days in the sun, to get up on their chairs and dance, I obey, though I know even less about dancing than I do about drinking. I do it all with intoxicated, infantile joy, free of self-consciousness and ironic remove. My mother watches approvingly, her boychick getting buzzed off his first margarita when he could, if things had gone just a wee bit differently, be passing a bottle of lukewarm vodka in a trench somewhere in Chechnya. The photograph taken that night shows two people who are genuinely happy.

Last week, I returned to Señor Frog's for the first time since Cancún. The chain, which is owned by the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Anderson's, has about a dozen locations, almost all of them in the Caribbean, where alcohol and sunlight reportedly induce a state known as relaxation. Its motto is "Unleash your fiesta," which one does by drinking concoctions with names like Pimp Frog's and Mother Frogger out of "yard glasses" that look like the bones of prehistoric beasts, except for their fluorescent color. A good deal of Señor Frog's is fluorescent, including, inauspiciously, some of the food. Fluorescence thereby constitutes a large portion of the fun-inducing atmosphere. The rest is supplied by alcohol.

The New York City location, which opened last month, is the first in the Northeast. The reasons for this expansion are unclear: Much like the Wehrmacht, restaurant chains seem to treat expansion as proof of inherent strength. Plopping down the restaurant on Coney Island would have at least made some sense, given the beach-cabana sensibility of Señor Frog's. Instead, the marketing savants of Grupo Anderson's settled on the concrete beach of Times Square, across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where festivities are often conducted in grimy corners, with bottles in paper bags. Many hundreds of miles from all other locations of Señor Frog's, this northern outpost is like the far-flung station of Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, only more horrifying in certain key aspects.

Fluorescent signs line the roof with a saying ripped right out of a college dorm room. Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

As it happens, my mother has been staying with me and my wife in Brooklyn, helping with our just-born second child. When she learned of my intention to visit Señor Frog's, she reminded me of Cancún, hoping to mitigate the nastiness she suspected I was planning to unleash, now that I had the vast reserves of cultural sophistication that I sorely lacked back in 1997.

"Maybe you will say nice things?"

There was something mildly tragic in my mother's plea of clemency for the doomed frog, which she must have known would go unheeded. This may or may not be the right time to mention that she watches Fox News, as do many other Russian-Americans of the Jewish persuasion (taxes, Israel). Is there a correlation between affinity for Fox News and sympathy for Señor Frog's? Or even more intriguingly, between Señor Frog's and a Soviet heritage? The only animal mascots I remember from my Leningrad youth urged us to build smelting plants and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the service of the ever-imperiled socialist dream. There was no talk of margaritas. Or guacamole.

Señor Frog's is wedged into a narrow space between a movie theater and a subway station, near the frayed and pungent western edge of Times Square. I got there around midnight, about seven hours after the location had opened for the very first time. Several brightly attired employees stood outside the entrance, trying to herd tourists inside the door and down the stairs: The restaurant is in a basement. Their energetic exclamations met with seemingly very infrequent success. With all its screens and glass façades, Times Square is the selfie grafted onto the urban landscape. Señor Frog's feels as if it's somehow outside this endless party, which is why, on one visit, screens showed what appeared to be a live feed of Times Square, broadcasting something between longing and reassurance.

A word about those employees: They are heroes, loyal soldiers in the unending battle to ensure that everyone at Señor Frog's is always having the most conceivable amount of fun. They operate on a psychic plane of impressive, unremitting cheer that should be explored by the makers of antidepressants. Their mission is not to serve you food or drink, but to tend to your pleasure. Whether you are, in fact, having fun is the operative question, and it is a question you are asked with astounding frequency, such that you eventually become introspective and a little insecure about the notion of "fun" as you heretofore knew it. Did you have fun in summer camp? Is your significant other fun? But this is not the place to ponder such questions. The waiters are misery detectives, unhappiness oncologists, blasting away malignant deposits of gloom with drinks called Big Watermelons and Frogs [sic] Legs. In ancient Greece, they would be attendants in the temple of Dionysus, where they would have Plato doing body shots and dancing along to The Weeknd.

One more comparison to the Third Reich (the last, I promise) is instructive: The gurus behind Señor Frog's appear to love sloganeering nearly as much as the Goebbels did, though the aims behind their respective propagandizing are, admittedly, somewhat divergent. The place is festooned with cheesy shibboleths, which cover the ceiling, many of the walls and the T-shirts worn by the waitstaff. These run from the merely irresponsible ("Nothing epic happens drinking water") to the vaguely creepy ("Drink 'till [sic] she's cute, but stop before the wedding"). Most of the slogans seem to suggest you should ingest enough grain alcohol to do something stupid, because stupidity to fun is like, well, alcohol to beer. Collectively, the slogans—and there must be close to 50 around the restaurant, mostly written in fluorescent lettering (of course) on placards attached to the ceiling, thus making for an unavoidable canopy—promise sexual congress and, more broadly, an escape from responsibility, as long as you drink and eat until you are no longer able to do either, and quit worrying about your crappy job and unimpressive physique, as those are anxieties foisted upon you by the Man. Here, you are in the clutches of the Frog.

As for the food, my tacos came in a plastic replica of a bathroom sink. This is apparently part of the wild-and-crazy ethos that pervades Señor Frog's: Online, I saw images of food served on a skateboard and in a shoe. Speaking of shoes, that was roughly the mouthfeel of the cubed "meat" in my tacos.

But food apparently accounts for only 25 percent of the revenue across the Señor Frog's chain: Its métier is booze, served in its trademark yard glasses. There are smaller portions, but ordering these would be a hint that you are, in fact, a fifth columnist in the war against boredom and sobriety that is openly declared in several Señor Frog's slogans. I can't think of another drinking establishment so brazenly intent on getting you drunk and so unashamed of those intentions. Señor Frog's may well be, with all its blithely low-brow, countercultural bombast, the Donald Trump of chain restaurants, proud to proclaim its own trashiness because it is a trashiness we would all celebrate if we weren't so tightly coiled.

How sad, then, to report that Señor Frog appears to have learned his mixology in a Penn State fraternity basement. Despite the profusion of alcoholic offerings on the menu, virtually all taste like sugar water with ice and just a dash of alcohol. You could, I suppose, stick to the pints of InBev offerings—Budweiser, Bud Light, etc.—from the bar, but if that's your pleasure, why are you at Señor Frog's? Then again, why are any of us at Señor Frog's? What are we doing in a basement in Times Square? Why are we eating out of sinks?

And yet, some people do appear to have fun at Señor Frog's. I didn't really see any, but there are pictures of them on the Internet, smiling sloppily and brandishing their yard glasses like weapons. So there, snooty culture snob from New York. Fun, like religious piety, is difficult to quantify. Some are bowled over by cathedrals; others see only a history of bloodshed and deception. Fun is the American religion, and though Señor Frog's is not, strictly, an American enterprise, it fully embodies the combination of confident irreverence and blind immoderation that most closely approximates that acutely American state of mind. "Our philosophy is simple," the menu says. "Have fun, let yourself go, and unleash your fiesta." You are free to do so "without worrying about silly rules and regulations," though presumably state and federal statutes regarding sexual assault, driving under the influence and public intoxication might yet apply.

Owned by the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Anderson’s, Señor Frogs has about a dozen locations, mostly in the Caribbean. The Time Square location in New York City represents the chain's northern most location. Shaminder Dulai for Newsweek

Actually, I saw very little fun at Señor Frog's other than that generated by the tireless staff. It is hard to have fun in a dark basement restaurant. A restaurant with a stage on which a singer is doing a rendition of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," while a Sofia Vergara look-alike gyrates beside him in a gold skirt. There are also present on the stage two surly guitar players who are very obviously not playing their guitars and only barely pretending to do so. Someone is making balloons, which is, like so much about Señor Frog's, weirdly infantilizing. "Shot girls" walk around with trays of test tubes. I refuse their offer, because I do not like to ingest fluorescent things. Before me is a fluorescent margarita, barely touched. I have been asked many, many times if I am having a good time, if everything is fine, etc. It is becoming clear that the waitstaff is coming to regard me as a sort of Rain Man eccentric, or some Times Square castaway who has come here not to have fun but because he has nowhere else to go. I am treated, ultimately, like someone who does not understand the basic mission of Señor Frog's, as someone who is incapable of having fun. As Donald Trump might say, a loser.

Señor Frog's probably makes more sense abroad, where the American traveler needs a refuge from confusing local customs. It also makes sense in countries where teenagers can drink: Certainly, that's what drew me to Señor Frog's all those years ago. It is clearly meant to appeal to a teenage sensibility, one that is voracious and uncritical and never quite drunk enough. To come to Señor Frog's as an adult, though, is to recognize that your youth has passed. You might as well drown that recognition in a tub of crappy margarita (or, as things stand, a sink of tacos).

Leaving my tacos to languish in the aforementioned basin, I wandered back out into Times Square, which has recently been in the news for aggressive panhandling by costumed cartoon characters and bare-chested women. New York has dispatched considerable law enforcement resources to deal with these pestilent individuals, though the danger to public welfare remains poorly defined. Some fear that the comely desnudas and surly Elmos are signs that Times Square is returning to the lubricious pre-Giuliani days of prostitutes and porn shops, but that doesn't seem likely. Over the years, the primary sin of Times Square—lust—has been replaced by the sin of gluttony, which is a lot closer to the American psyche. That's probably why the good folks of Grupo Anderson's set their drunken little frog down in Times Square, so very far from any sand or palm trees. The promise of Señor Frog's is a warped kind of liberation theology, a paean to excess reflected on the square's giant screens. So slurp another margarita, chow down on some yummy guac, quit worrying about your liver and your bank account. You're having fun.