"It's like trying a drug for the first time," my tablemate said, as she watched me take a careful bite from a grilled serrano pepper. The plate of chiles and onions had been laid out like a gauntlet, and the anticipation was only heightened by the antics of our waitress, Marisol, who recoiled in playful horror as she watched me take a first, pensive bite.
Turns out they weren't that hot. And as Marisol had suggested, they make a great embellishment for much of the menu at Mr. Mesero, Uptown's newest Mexican restaurant. Chop them up with a fork and knife and dispatch them at will into your tacos, on top of your enchiladas or alongside your wood-grilled steak, whose smoky perfume rose from the embers of burning oak coals.
That smoke's not the only phoenix here. The service industry is a hard one, but it's been even harder on Michael Rodriguez, the man responsible for this tiny restaurant, tucked into its colorful and quaint house on McKinney Avenue. In the late fall of 2008, Rodriguez stepped down as CEO of the M Crowd Restaurant Group, the company he helped build into a little culinary empire of Mi Cocinas, Taco Diners and the Mercury. His departure was preceded by alcohol abuse and personal issues both with his employees and family, and it prompted a three-year hiatus from the restaurant industry.
Pollo Soup $6
Grilled Chiles $3
12-Ounce Strip $22.50
Mico is a restaurateur at heart, though. Food service is in his bones, and those bones are solid. He started the original Mi Cocina 20 years ago, convincing Dallas to pay double for fancy enchiladas. Now he appears to have remodeled himself, in tandem with the small building that houses Mr. Mesero, a modern Mexican Mecca complete with chips, salsa and frozen margaritas, served by a sharp and courteous front-of-the-actual-house staff.
Mesero means "waiter" in Spanish, a fitting name, considering that Rodriguez has assembled one of the warmest teams you'll find in Dallas. In addition to Marisol, there's Miriam from the Dominican Republic. She compares herself to your grandmother as she serves nachos and warm words pour from her perfectly gap-toothed smile. There's Arden, too, the upbeat bartender behind some seriously boozy margaritas. He gushes about the food with an inflection fit for Broadway.
It's embellished praise, perhaps, but not at all a lie. Rodriguez's menu, stamped with a "Mexican+American" logo, is just that. There are enchiladas filled with stewed and roasted meats, topped with piquant salsa verde or a pungent mole, and single-ply tacos filled with land and sea. There are burgers and pork sandwiches and steaks, too. The menu is not really Tex-Mex — there's not enough cheese — but it's not really Mexican, either. Tex-Mex-American, perhaps.
On one visit, a pescado taco promised grilled fish but presented it fried instead. The lightly battered strips of cod were a rich and flaky counterpoint to some crunchy but bland slaw. A creamy drizzle of sauce brought the dish together, though, and the menu error was inconsequential. These would stand up to the seafood tacos served in Southern California.
Brisket fillings were fine, tender and stringy if a little bland, but carnitas bordered on bad. The soft, wet meat was braised to the consistency of cat food, and a quick trip to the griddle for crisping made little difference in the finished dish. Chicken was better — tender and mildly seasoned — and the shrimp was fine, though it could have used more color and char.
The guacamole was fresh and simple but under-salted, and tortillas were upsetting, especially when you consider the hand-made versions cranked out daily across this city. The salads were better, although not terribly innovative. At least they were built from fresh, bright ingredients.
Both soups came through. Pollo Y Tomatillo boasted an acidic, light-green tomatillo base and tender shards of chicken, and was garnished with radish, cabbage and tortilla strips. It soothed just like a soup in winter should. Fideo Y Pollo, a tomato-driven affair with thinly sliced avocado, was not bright but smoky, and topped with fried onions.
It's hard to tell if Mesero's "Rose" burger is cute or an abomination. I'm sure it perfectly recalls the dry, rubbery burgers served at the long-closed Rose's Bluebonnet Sandwich Shop on Greenville Avenue. Rodriguez ate there himself and uses the item to honor Rose Stivers, who ran the shop till it closed. She died in 2003, just before her 89th birthday.
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Rodriguez tosses in a second hockey puck and tops them with a stack of crisp iceberg, some salty pickle slices and tomatoes as red as blood. The "Rose" will never win a burger competition, but it's there as a safety item and it's satisfying, in a hey-it's-only-$7.50 kind of way.
The 12-ounce Mico "12" Strip a la Mexicana is worth the $22.50 price of admission. The kitchen cooks the steak over your choice of flat or wood-fired grill and serves it sliced and topped with butter and cojita, with tomato salsa and those store-bought tortillas on the side. Grab a piece of meat using a tortilla shard as finger mitt and add salsa and guacamole. Remember those blistered serranos and soft onions? Use them here. You'll compose a near-perfect bite.
But perfect bites aren't why you'll come back to Mr. Mesero. You'll come back for those boozy 'ritas and the service. You'll come back for Luna, another waitress who wants so badly for you to enjoy your meal. She made no concession for the "Rose" burger, which you might think an odd offering at a Mexican restaurant. Rather, she flaunted it, asserting its greatness and somehow making it seem great.
And you'll come back for Rodriguez himself, who on any given night can be seen hunchbacked while serving guests himself, carefully spooning a runny, veggie-laden queso onto each guest's chip. Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a good host. He talks with his guests as they make for the door and quietly offers a better table when one is available. This is why, on some nights, the patrons at Mr. Mesero skew a little older and call the owner by name. Mico's been working this crowd for years, and he's made them into his family.