Some balls. A brand new food critic, strolling into town from far away, daring to review a Mexican restaurant in his debut? Even worse: I hail from up north, where most restaurants serve bastardized Tex-Mex produced by industrious El Salvadorians.
But Mesa fell into my lap and ended up being a pleasant surprise. (Read the full review in this week's paper or on the restaurant page.) The food was solid and on a slow night the staff was engaging -- at least for the few of us sitting at the bar on one weekend night.
Veronica was working. She used to sweat it out at Chili's near the airport, but now she tends bar for Raul and Olga. She poured me a beer as a quiet couple took their seats at a table. Willy arrived a few seconds later. He was bald-headed and bespectacled, donning low-top Chucks, and he immediately asked for the chef and started casing the joint.
"Which is the best table for a party of four?" he asked, surveying the dining room. A discerning diner? It turns out the real estate agent was planning his birthday party and wanted everything perfect. He spent equal time assessing the menu and asking what I thought of the dishes in front of me.
Willy was an inquisitive character, asking Veronica about the Technicolor jars that lined the back of the bar: cloudy whites, lime greens, orange, and a sinister burgundy that looked like trouble. The infused booze forms the basis for a cocktail menu 10 or so drinks long. Veronica poured two samples into shot glasses for us to try. The first, a green pepper tequila, was piquant and bright. It packed heat but was palatable.
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The second had Willy in a fit, making faces that had me concerned for his health. He also made me curious; I downed the rest of the half-spent shot. The rusty-red tequila, infused with smoky dried chiles, was intense and sinister. It hit first with booze, but then liquor faded to smoke, and smoke faded to bitter, and bitter faded to a long slow burn.
Now I was the one choking, and a pair of customers seated at tables made a joke at my expense. But they wanted in too, I'm pretty sure.
My night ended with an invitation from Willy I probably should have accepted, to a party only four people deep. But I had other meals to eat. I wonder how things went. Did he order the delicious oxtail I recommended, the mole, or some other dish from Veracruz? Either way, he picked a nice spot to celebrate.
Read Scott Reitz's full review of Mesa, and check back next week for his take on a very different restaurant from a very different part of the world.