More fascinating than the food and the thirst-quenching, electric-blue margaritas are the architecture and interior design at Blue Mesa. Both--at least at the Blue Mesa on Northwest Highway and the new Blue Mesa off the Dallas North Tollway in Plano--dazzle with unexpected little flourishes. The Northwest Highway installment has a dramatic entryway with a canyon-like portal enclosed with 40-foot pleated stucco walls leading up to a pair of large wooden doors that spill into a spiral staircase with rebar handrails.
The Plano version has a 45-foot-tall slatted rectangular tower that barks the Blue Mesa moniker across the barren north Plano plain. The outside wall is painted bright red. Blue Mesa co-owner Liz Baron says they wanted this new Blue Mesa to be a stark departure visually from the existing Blue Mesa restaurants. And there was a lot of wiggle room for dramatic departing, as this restaurant is the first freestanding, non-strip-mall Blue Mesa installation. "We wanted the new restaurant to be a little more modern and a little less Southwestern," says Baron, who earned a fine-arts degree in design from New York's Pratt Institute. "We've always been against having a themed look."
There is little Southwestern themery in this restaurant save for the frozen-margarita machines in the bar. Its terrazzo floors give way to black plastic chairs, walls tiled in blond woods, pale yellows, cool greens and blues and rippled wavy soffets. It even has a grove of shorn, varnished trees that look as though they're growing out of the floor. This is the design element that separates the dining room from the open kitchen.
That open kitchen produces what Jim Baron calls Blue Mesa's trademark flavor profile. It's couched on bold flavors, he says. Yet despite its New Mexican and Arizonian roots, it's a profile that doesn't promiscuously blast with heat. "We don't mean bold in the sense that you walk into a Mexican restaurant and get a burn," he says.
This strain of temerity shows up in numerous places on the Blue Mesa menu. Feathery light quesadillas are given basil breath instead of heat, creating a Southwestern appetizer that sings with a pesto tremolo.
Blue Mesa's black beans, hearty and more sophisticated than their swarthy counterparts, are rich in smoke with broad undertones driven by the sugar and sherry cooked into them. Nachos hold up well under the weight of these beans, which add a little smoke to the cheese and dry chicken they share space with on the chip. Chicken taquitos are good, too, with an outer sheath huddled around a moist interior. These taquitos deliver without sweating a profusion of grease.
Spinach queso, flecked with tomato, also had threads of smoke. And unlike the pale yellow slurry traditionally served with corn chips or drooled over nachos, this queso is thick and stiff. It grips with a jalapeño bite that's potent enough to announce its presence, but not so overwhelming that you're driven to guzzle from every water glass at your table.
Not that Blue Mesa shuns heat. The jalapeño relish that dolls up several of the entrées is like a culinary arc welder. Other dishes succeed without resorting to heat. The tortilla soup, crowded with tortilla strips, has a clean chicken broth jolted with lime.
But there are also dishes where boldness, in any form, is largely absent. Spa fish of the day (purported to slough off just 321 calories and 7 grams of fat no matter what the species) was a sheet of dense, flaky mahi mahi that had nothing but clean juicy fish flavors.
The healthful drive collapsed a bit with the spa chicken and spinach enchiladas (444 calories and 11 grams of fat). The corn tortillas were soggy, drenched as they were in a brisk tomatillo sauce, and the chicken was sparse, perhaps a function of the menu's caloric regulations.
One dish that reached exquisite balance between natural richness and bold flavorings was the red-chili-crusted salmon, a piece of pan-seared fish with a mild chili, cumin and garlic crust in a lime-butter sauce. The salmon, topped with chopped tomato and onion, was moist and slightly sweet, though a side of rice was oiled to a disagreeable extent.
Jim Baron, a former clinical psychologist, says that Blue Mesa's grilled meats slough off bold flavors not so much because of the ingredients they use, but because of how they are prepared. Beef and chicken undergo a vacuum marinating process via a food-service device called a tumbler. Meat purveyors generally use these utensils to draw moisture into meats, fattening them up for weighing. Blue Mesa uses this process to drive marinade flavors deep into the flesh. "It forces the flavor into the center of the meat," he says. The meats are then "flash grilled" for two to three minutes.
Results are evident in the mixed-grill churrascaritas, a medley of red-chili-glazed steak, shrimp, chicken and smoked sausage. Chili-glazed steak is rich and juicy with a subtle ring of sweetness on the finish. Sausage is served as a link sheared vertically in half. The outside is slightly crisp, yet the meat is still juicy, preserving its smoky richness and zest. Ginger chipotle chicken is succulent and flavorful, as well. But perhaps the best composition in this grouping is the jumbo shrimp that arrive impaled on a pair of crisscrossing wooden sticks. The juicy shrimp let loose with a compelling spice edge that's mellowed with a citrus sweetness. Baron says the shrimp were not marinated but were dry-rubbed with a mixture of ancho chili, cinnamon, clove and other spices. Then on the grill they're lapped with an orange-ginger chipotle glaze creating a Southwestern flavor that leans a little Asian.
The only items that really stumble on the menu are the sides. Asparagus stalks found on a couple of plates were overcooked and mushy. Grilled sweet potatoes, thickly sliced discs with grate marks, are soft and dry. Grilling seems to desiccate them into a texture that doesn't work well in the mouth. Perhaps if the potatoes were doused with a Southwestern gravy, or sliced thinner and grilled so that they develop a crisper crust, they would work better.
Desserts didn't come off with practiced flash either.
There was nothing crisp about the cinnamon apple crisp, which was dry and soft. And though the apples were Granny Smith, there was little tang that slipped past the limp apples and soggy crust.
Santa Fe honey flan, a fluffy disc with a smear of raspberry over the top, was much better. The flavor was rich, and the custard didn't have the texture of most flans. Instead of stiff and forthright, it was creamy with rough edges.
Jim Baron says they plan to capitalize on the Blue Mesa flavor profile by leveraging it across many platforms. In addition to launching a new Blue Mesa Grill in Southlake, Baron says they're planning to hit retail shelves with Blue Mesa smoky salsa, jalapeño relish and sweet-potato chips. They're also trying to assemble a fast-casual concept that will function as a sort of Blue Mesa "mini me" serving upscale tacos, quesadillas and black bean soup. Baron says he hopes to launch up to 10 of the new restaurants in and around Dallas over the next several years. He plans to use the smaller outlets to promote the catering and brunch services at the larger Blue Mesas. "They'd work as satellites of the bigger mother ships," he says.
Boldly they go.
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