Americans love Mexican food. Many, however, only know Taco Bell or “all-you-can eat-Tex-Mex buffets for $9.95!!!” This sells short a cuisine that can be immensely varied and sophisticated. Authentic Mexican cuisine in the hands of a talented chef can transport diners to profound gastronomic highs.
I’ve been lucky to be a culinary tourist at Mexico City’s landmark Restaurant Izote de Patricia Quintana as well as the historic, upscale La Hacienda de los Morales. But I’ve also been transported on the other Gulf coast at Vera Cruz’s La Suriana. It’s far away from the downtown “zócalo” (town square) in a working class district across from a topless bar. There you’ll find an 8-foot crocodile snoozing on the white-tiled kitchen floor (seriously, you can look it up) and exquisitely prepared pescado à la Veracruzana. Great food often comes from unlikely places and explodes our stereotypes about what a particular cuisine can offer.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more Mexican restaurants that are aspirational in the mode of Fourth Street’s Red Mesa. Far away from the trendy downtown scene, it promises “a synergy of the finest ingredients, bright, bold flavors and refined cooking skills,” and it delivers big time — even without a croc in the kitchen. First of all, their pitcher of red sangria is everything you could wish for. It’s a marvelous balance of sparkly and sweet, fruity and bracingly acidic. If I didn’t have to drive, I could have finished a pitcher by myself. Luckily, my dining companions were equally enamored.
The menu is incredibly varied, with nary a fajita in sight. If you want to stretch your idea of Mexican cuisine, there are innumerable choices to excite your taste buds. The creaminess of avocado is the lure of guacamole; that’s why it’s a ubiquitous menu item. Red Mesa’s version is fresh with hints of onion, jalapeño and cilantro. It’s served with warm tortillas instead of chips. For me, it’s a bit one-note; I’m used to some tomatoes and cumin for extra dimension.
Still it’s hard to be upset when everything else from the kitchen is balanced, multi-dimensional, and full of surprises. This is a simple checklist, but hard to deliver. Red Mesa comes through with flying colors. Ceviche campechano brings small chunks of citrus-marinated mahi, Gulf shrimp and bay scallops together with diced jicama, cilantro, and pickled red onions in a spicy Peruvian aji amarillo pepper sauce with the brightness of fresh orange. It looks beautiful in a martini glass and with one bite your mouth is dancing with the heady mix of flavors. The menu claims mild heat, but our table found it hot, hot, hot — and delicious. Zarape de pato shreds orange-braised duck confit on a corn tortilla floating in a tangy habanero tomato sauce. Add some pickled red onions and queso fresco and it screams with flavor.
The entrees we encounter are equally varied and exciting. Grilled mahi-mahi shines with coconut lime mojito, plantain yuca mofongo with hints of garlic and pork, tequila-braised field greens and sweet pineapple salsa. This mouth-watering mix of flavors bounces around your palate like a jumping bean.
Red Mesa offers an enchilada trio on steroids; beautiful on the plate with flavors singing in polyphony like a Hallelujah Chorus in your mouth. First there’s duck enchilada with raspberry chipotle cream sauce, then the subtle chicken enchilada with salsa roja, and finally a crab and shrimp enchilada with poblano cream sauce. By the time you add the congri (perfect rice and black beans) with an herbaceous chimichurri, your head is spinning with sensory overload.
In the absence of fajitas, we opt for a grilled skirt steak with a mild chimayo chile rub and chipotle cream sauce accompanied by fried yuca and chipotle chile cactus salsa. It’s Mexican meat and potatoes. The skirt steak makes up in flavor for what it lacks in tenderness, and the yuca is a welcome alternative to spuds. The salsa adds another layer of flavor; think of it as Mexican steak sauce.
We are very full, but we can’t turn away from a sweet ending. Temptations include crème brûlée cheesecake, chocolate spoon cake, fried ice cream, churros, and a wonderful-sounding Mexican chocolate and applewood smoked bacon brioche bread pudding served with warm cajeta (tangy goat’s milk caramel) sauce and whipped cream. We finally settle for a guava empanada.
It turns out to be a spectacular example of elevating simple ingredients and traditional techniques into something special. Guava-cream cheese filling is stuffed into a light fried puff pastry empanada dusted with cinnamon and sugar. This is special enough on its own, but the creamy vanilla gelato is sweet, its perfumed aroma mingling with the tropical sweet and sour mango-guava sauce.
We all sit silently, purring with contentment. It’s a good thing there’s no crocodile at Red Mesa or we’d be goners.
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