Keeping the pita puffed

Hedary's Lebanese Oven & Grill offers reverent interpretations of ancient dishes

Launched by partners David Trevino and Luis Ramirez, Nuevo Leon came to life in late 1994 in a Farmers Branch strip mall. It was modest and downscale, incorporating used furnishings and equipment. But it flourished, and the pair decided to test their Mex-mettle with a Dallas eatery a few notches above the Farmers Branch version on lower Greenville Avenue. The menus at both spots are exactly the same, except that the Dallas offshoot focuses more on presentation.

Occupying the old Cenaduria space, Nuevo Leon has a rustic, old-town-square patio feel with lots of used brick, mocha-colored walls, and watercolors depicting a variety of Mexican scenes, painted by Trevino's mother. It's a festive place with friendly, attentive servers, high ceilings, and a noise level that makes conversation with the person across from you nearly impossible without the aid of a megaphone or a sign language course. This challenge is compounded by the live music that breaks through the static nightly between 8:30 and 9 in the bar area.

But if your palate isn't dulled by decibel overload, you're in for the Mexican taste bud massage of your life. Trevino and Ramirez--who dub their eatery Mex-Mex in a corny thumbing-of-the-nose at Dallas' ubiquitous Tex-Mexiness--seek to merge the cuisines from two distinct Mexican regions. Trevino hails from Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon, an arid region where char-grilled steaks and tacos are culinary staples, while Ramirez comes from Guanajuato, a region rich in vegetation and famous for its explosively hot peppers. Their goal is to successfully draw on these elements with family recipes while emphasizing the variety of salsas and other sauces common in Mexico. Indeed, Nuevo Leon serves three fresh, zesty salsas with the obligatory greasy chips on paper plopped in a basket: a cold, searing, bright-green salsa made from jalapenos laced with lime and cilantro; a milder, warmer, lentil soup-colored salsa fashioned from green chilies and tomatillos; and a still milder, warmer red salsa that's rich, hearty, thick, and "saucy" rather than chunky and watery--easily among the best salsas you'll find in Dallas.

If you don't cake your gullet with too many chips--an ever-present danger in Mexican restaurants--you'll find the appetizers equally engaging. Ceviche, often a glob of fishy-smelling diced sea flesh and tomatoes terrorized by far too much lime juice and spice, was fresh, appropriately tangy, and very satisfying. And though they sound like digestive concussion bombs, the camarones rellenos--four fat pieces of lightly battered, deep-fried shrimp stuffed with white cheese and jalapeno in Chimiluigi sauce--were as attractive as they were tasty couched in a black, heated, four-legged stone pot and decorated with banana leaves.

Carne asada Chimichurri--a charred, leathery steak--didn't survive an attempted resuscitation with garlic, herbs, and hot spices, though it was redeemed slightly by the tender, chewy cheese enchilada in pasilla sauce with which it was partnered on the plate. It left me wondering if it was Mr. Trevino's homeland that was arid, or just the cattle.

No such glitches with the camarones "Luis" though, sauteed shrimp with onions, mushrooms, and poblano peppers in roast garlic oil soaked in a light, silky cream-Monterey Jack cheese sauce. Served in a skillet, the shrimp were succulent, firm, and tender and accompanied by a simple, slightly sweet fresh spinach salad plus a side of fried bananas.

Slowly cooked to "melt in your mouth" perfection is how the menu describes the cabrito al horno: guajillo-marinated young goat wrapped in banana leaves and served with a choice of carnitas (pork) or quail in mole sauce. And the kid--delicate, sweet, and tender with an equally stirring bit of quail in mole--really did melt. But show me, don't tell me. The menu also includes a variety of enchiladas and guisos (stews).

Nuevo Leon's dessert experience is a little on the odd side. Instead of bringing out a plate showcasing prepared desserts, our server presented us with a photo album containing snapshots of each dessert in various poses. We selected the crepas con cajeta--thin crepes in caramel sauce--but they were out. So we ordered the flan covered in caramelized sugar sauce and Grand Marnier. Several attempts to ignite the poor custard were unsuccessful as our server repeatedly probed it with burning matches. Perhaps a butane lighter would have done the trick. We ate it without the flaming overture, and the Grand Marnier overwhelmed it.

Service was generally pleasant and efficient if not a little rickety; our server repeatedly nudged us to get our entree order in. Owner Ramirez stopped by each table to greet diners, just like so many restaurant show-biz chefs and owners do. But with one difference: After leaving a table of guests, Ramirez would scan his dining room, and if he spotted a table that needed clearing or a server in need of assistance delivering an order, he jumped right in. This is a man who knows his restaurant is the star, not himself. And it shows.

Hedary's Lebanese Oven & Grill. 7915 Belt Line Road. (972) 233-1080. Open for Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday 5-11 p.m., and Saturday 3-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Neuvo Leon. 2013 Greenville Ave. (214) 887-8148. Open Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Maza $17
Mehshe warak aresh $5.75
Kafta $8.95
Sujuk $8.95
Lahm mishwi $10.95
Rice pudding $2.50

Nuevo Leon:
Ceviche $5.95
Camarones rellenos $6.95
Camarones "Luis" $11.95
Cabrito al horno $12.95
Flan $2.25

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