Southwest jet set
Tequila is jet fuel. One whiff of the stuff leaves little doubt. OK, carburetor cleaner. But this propellant-disguised-as-beverage sure acts like jet fuel. Your face gets hot. Your blood thins, rushes, and simmers. You feel invincible, as if you could scale a cliff or file your own income tax return.
It takes a while to get to this point, at least for me. When Blue Mesa's tequila sampler arrived, I had already plowed through a bowl of chips. Alkie bait, these chips. In most restaurants, chips are an afterthought, a provision provided for doodling while the server figures out where the Negro Modelo is. They come cold, stale, salt-free and sheened in stuff you swear was developed by Vidal Sassoon.
But not here. Blue Mesa's chips come warm. They come crisp. Blue and blond ones are crowned with orange sweet potato shavings dusted in chili powder. All are sprinkled with salt flakes and clear of detectable grease.
Salsas are equally as good, sort of. A dark, pulpy mesquite-grilled tomato salsa is ripe with smoke and zest. But Blue Mesa's standard salsa with chunks of tomato and onion was uneven: watery and bland on one visit, thick and robust on another.
But the best thing to scoop with those chips is Blue Mesa's tableside guacamole. The stuff arrives on a cart with four avocado halves and a tray of racy igniters: tomato, cilantro, lime, red onion, and serrano peppers. The server stabs the avocado halves and slices a crisscross pattern in the gooey fruit. Then she gouges it from its skin and drops it into a bowl. The remaining ingredients are added, and the whole thing is tossed, mashed, pounded, and otherwise assaulted into palatable goop. The result is freshly firm, chunky, and tasty. The odd thing is the guacamole served on some of the other plates Blue Mesa assembles is little more than a runny, slithering goo devoid of flair.
But I digress. I was talking about tequila. Blue Mesa's flights arrive on a hubcap carpeted in ice with three half-shot glasses planted around a larger vial of sangrita (a spicy tomato and citrus juice that is sipped alternately with the spirit) in the center. I had to work up courage to sip the tequila. Just a scent of it gives me shivers, bringing back episodes of lime bites, salt licks, and throat splashes I'd just as soon forget. Most I have, thanks to the efficacy of the fluid. Tequila scrunches my face and reanimates my mind with repressed memories of mental and digestive tumult coupled with flashes of deviant behavior. So you can appreciate the skepticism that overwhelms me when it's suggested tequila has the same aromatic depth and flavor complexity that drives tuxedo-clad wine geeks.
Yet tequila does possess these subtle distinctions, roughly speaking. It has roots. Tequila is the descendant of the first alcoholic beverage known to be produced in North America: pulque. Aztecs were slurping this wine-like beverage, which had a flavor like sour milk, before the Spaniards introduced them to the art of distillation. Produced from the juice of the agave plant, pulque was revered for its cooling effects and nutritious benefits.
Yet the Aztecs learned that distillation is where the fun begins. Tequila goes through the distillation process twice, resulting in a nip that's roughly 104 proof (reduced to 80 proof with demineralized water before it's shipped to this country). The best tequila comes from a species dubbed blue agave. Today, some 90,000 acres of blue agave are cultivated in the upland valleys surrounding the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
With the surge in tequila consumption and the lengthy time it takes the blue agave to mature (10 years), the Mexican government permits the addition of fermentable sugars from non-agave sources -- ingredients that are a sure recipe for hangovers. But premium tequilas are generally made from 100 percent blue agave.
The drink's distinctions come into clear view after a few post-shiver sips. I ordered a blanco (Don Julio Silver), which is unaged; a reposado (Sauza Hornitos); and an El Conquistador añejo. The clean, clear blanco was subtly herbaceous, while the reposado, aged at least two months in oak barrels or casks, had a gentle amber color and a pronounced earthiness. The darker añejo was rich in smoky complexity with a smooth, warm finish. This is the one that kept me most interested, and I sipped it dry.
Blue Mesa also features a distillery of the month and a margarita mixed from the featured hooch. It's served in a blue-rimmed glass with a shaker so that you can splash more on the rocks when the bowl runs dry.
All of this stuff is generated in Blue Mesa's crisp tequila bar. The back bar is lit in frosty blue. A collection of 30 or so tequilas is arranged on flagstone shelves against the wall. The label of the month's featured tequila is rendered on a slide and projected against the wall between the bottles. It's so chic, you need a drink.
In fact, the whole restaurant is like a diner for the Southwest jet set. The entrance off the Lincoln Park parking lot isn't a door but an angled mouth that leads into a narrow passageway with stucco walls. Thick wood beams stretch across the top. Gray river stones are spread on each side of the walkway. It's like strolling through a river gorge.
At the end of the passageway is a pair of huge wooden doors, roughly 12 feet tall, punctured with tiny azure windows. Once you're through this fussy entrance, you still aren't in the restaurant. To enter it, you have to go up, either by elevator or a curving staircase.
The conclusion of the trek reveals walls in Southwestern hues. Shimmering copper-finished tiles line the curving wall in front of the open kitchen. The dining room is rich in blond woods and stone. Thirty-two tightly spaced sconces, shaped like tiny inverted teepees made of sticks and ruby-hued, gauze-like material, alternate symmetrically in three rows over one wall. It's all stunning.
And the place is loud. So loud, it's hard to hear your body reject the tequila sampler.
The menu picks up on the stylish decor. Crafted by Executive Chef Melissa Ballinger, formerly of Clyde's Restaurant Group, a collection of nine American grills in Washington, D.C., the menu displays a light, meticulous touch that merges a host of Southwestern influences from Mexico and New Mexico, with touches of South America.
This merging is illustrated in the soup. Creamy yellow corn chowder with a smooth vein of sweetness checked by a poblano and serrano spark lies next to a smoky black bean pottage in the painted desert soup, a preparation where each soup occupies one half of the bowl and meets in the middle. Tortilla soup was also tasty. Despite bits of slightly dry chicken, it was flush with crisp tortilla strips, celery, carrot, and onion floating in a fiery, broadly flavored broth with lively lime undercurrents.
Yet this soup was virtually the only chicken preparation without serious shortcomings. Navajo chicken salad was just plain dull. Instead of tender moist breast slices, the tough, dry, roasted chicken consisted primarily of leg and thigh meat. A slathering of ranch dressing over greens, corn, tomato, and avocado left the collection limp. Nothing broke free. Nothing engaged. The only interest was provided by the rich black beans pasted over the fried flatbread that held the salad.
Spa chicken and spinach enchiladas topped with a zesty tomatillo sauce sank further, in spite of a side of delicious grilled sweet potatoes and supple, crisp asparagus stalks rich in clean, nutty flavor. After a few minutes of poking, stabbing, and otherwise disassembling the things, it was clear someone had swiped the chicken. Not a speck was found. So we sent them back. When the correctly assembled version arrived, the spinach inside was a dull military green instead of bright, and the leaves were slimy. So much so, it was hard to guide them down.
The menu describes the pastry casing on the smoked chicken empanados as flaky. In reality, it was hard and heavy. Yet the jack cheese, moist chicken, poblano pepper, and caramelized onion filling was superb.
These were the most notable bumps, though -- other than the seafood mixed grill. The dish had skewers of succulent firm shrimp, moist flaky salmon, and an impaled piece of swordfish, the fish of the day. Only the day's catch didn't kiss the grill long enough. The center was raw.
The rest of Blue Mesa's culinary excursions were successful, however. Everything on the Mesa classic sampler -- from the sweet and smoky black bean adobe pie, to the blue corn chicken nachos, to the chewy and moist signature Mesa panna (a grilled, herbed flatbread) -- was tasty.
Mixed Mesa churrascaritas, rich steak, chicken, and succulent shrimp, revealed only one flaw: dry bird meat. But the Chimayo corn, a brilliant creation that Ballinger says was inspired by watching state fair corn roasters, was one of the best sides I have tasted. A cob of corn is brushed with ancho mayo, rolled in manchego cheese, and dusted with spices. The result is juicy and packed with flavors that never pummel the sweetness.
Despite its pedestrian roots, dessert was sublime too. The ice cream sandwich, vanilla ice cream parked between two rich, chewy house-baked fudge cookies, was fresh and engagingly sweet without cloying the tongue. The trio of sauces puddled on the plate -- honey, fudge, and goat's-milk caramel, was restrained. Sun-dried cherries dotting a dollop of whipped cream charged the thing with tartness.
Most of the creations for this third leg in the Blue Mesa Grill trio (other locations are in Addison and Fort Worth) show meticulous agility and a keen consciousness of flavor profiles. The service is conscientious, if a little green. Despite a few pieces of cumbersome baggage burdening its execution, this place has enough fuel to keep it aloft. Literally.
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