At Wild Salsa, It Takes Tequila to Tango

Wild Salsa isn't your standard Mexican-American restaurant. It's not buried in a suburban strip mall but perched smack in the middle of downtown, across from the lush grass, sculptures and dog walkers of Main Street Garden. There's also an air of polish here that might be missing from your salsa-drenched Chili's trips.

A glass block wall fashioned from Patrón bottles glows an unnatural red as you pull open the front door and approach the hostess stand. Artwork, inspired by Día de los Muertos, adorns the walls. An open gas fireplace filled with hot lava rocks and crowned with a weathered copper exhaust vent casts a soft light, warming up a space with windows so big you're practically outdoors when they open. This could be another hip downtown lounge, if not for the colorful sugar skulls decorating chalkboard menus and the staff members' T-shirts.

There is, however, plenty of salsa. It comes one porcelain dish after the next, filled with a crazy-tart tomatillo salsa verde that packs heat. Chips come by the basketful, each replaced the second its predecessor empties, until the table cries uncle or leaves the previous portion untouched.


Wild Salsa

Wild Salsa Tacos $2.50-$3.50 Guacamole $8-$12 Adobo Potatoes $4 Elotes Callejeros $3 Roasted Chicken $16 BBQ Shrimp $18 Lamb Shank $30

It's best to exercise caution with this gratis snack. There's some decent food coming — as long as you can properly navigate Wild Salsa's colorfully printed menu.

You know who's a good navigator? Booze.

The margaritas here are tart, which is refreshing, but they hardly stand out, even with a chile-salted rim kicking things up. A cloying sangria looks oddly purple and tastes almost medicinal.

Warm up with a tequila flight instead. Priced at $10 to $12 (with the exception of the $30 añejo version), the tastings offer three shots, each around an ounce, perched in a wooden board with limes and a small shot glass of sweet sangrita for chasing. The flights are a serious bargain — and a great way to warm up for another flavor flight you shouldn't miss, though you'll have to assemble this one on your own. Eight tacos grace the menu, ranging from the traditional tinga to the rule-bending sweetbreads. They're fairly priced, from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece, and nearly all of them are worth sampling.

The sweetbread tacos pair small morsels of tender sweetbreads with a chunky peach salsa, added sparingly for a play on sweet that doesn't overwhelm or wilt the crisply fried filling.

The barbacoa and lengua tacos demonstrate how sweet and acidic flavors alter meat's richness. The barbacoa is rustic and flavorful, even if you can't taste the beer the menu says it's braised in. The fatty beef is complemented with onions cooked into a sugary caramelization that's heavy on the palate. The lengua filling is also robust, but the flavors are tempered with tart pickled escabeche onions that really wake up your mouth.

Chicken tinga is a moist braise flavored with chipotle pepper and topped with a simple pico de gallo. The steak is laced with smoke and cooked a pleasantly chewy medium-rare. The al pastor taco showcases tender morsels of pork, tinged red with musky achiote and topped with pineapple.

It's not till you get to the seafood versions that flavors flop. Shrimp and cheese never belong together — ever — yet these poor abused crustaceans suffocate under a heavy blanket of queso. The grilled fish taco, which changes often, according to the menu, is passable but lifeless when compared to Wild Salsa's meat tacos.

The coastal guacamole makes better use of the ocean's bounty but still seems disjointed. Loaded with shrimp scallops and lime, the puree is too seafood-driven to please a guac fan and too heavy on the avocado to satisfy a ceviche lover. I find myself right in the center, content but a bit confused.

The bacon version might also perplex a guacamole purist. The kitchen has the sense to leave the crunchy, crumbled bacon on top of the dish, to be incorporated as you dip each chip. But while the move avoids flaccid, soggy swine, the bacon feels gimmicky, even if the entire bowl disappeared from my table in a tortilla-chip driven frenzy. Really, the best guacamole is the simplest, and subsequently the cheapest, where grilled sweet onions are the only departure from traditional recipes.

Platos Fuertes, the section of the menu devoted to large plates, is a minefield. A dry half-roasted chicken wears a salty shellac of acrid sauce. The rice served alongside it was too salty one night and fine the next. An elote cilantro sauce, though delicious, can't save the dish.

The BBQ Shrimp misses even worse. The lifeless prawns have no char, no kiss of flame, no smoke. Poached would better describe them, swimming in a sweet mango sauce that shares nothing in common with barbecue. I wish the kitchen would kick up that sauce with more piquancy, or more smoke, and way less mango puree, and then pour it cautiously over shrimp cooked crisp on a wicked-hot grill. I'd eat them blackened tails and all.

The sides are better, but there's a heavy hand in the salt pig here too. Elotes pair beautiful corn, cooked just enough to retain a sweet crunch, with crema and cheese, but the lime-flooded sauce it swims in will make you pucker. Potatoes are simple, skin-on tender spuds coated in a creamy sauce that uses adobo sparingly. A win.

The lamb shank is safe, cooked till it's fall-from-the-bone tender, and served alongside a poblano and roasted corn tamale the size of a baby's thigh. It's a $30 plate, though, steep for casual Mexican dining, and a price point that had me expecting something a little more refined.

I may not be the only one hoping for more. The dining room was quiet when I visited on a late weekday evening, and the bar was empty, save for the trio of women in starched white shirts, blowing off steam after a shift at the Chop House across the street. By 9 that evening, the place was empty.

A Friday night was, however, bustling. There was no wait but the place was full, with diners spilling out onto a pleasant patio outfitted with picnic tables, each separated by a large container garden of herbs. The mint out there grows like the weed that it is, and some of it makes its way into a mojito back at the bar.

It's here that I realized Wild Salsa's greatest utility. Many of the tables are generously sized and perfect for casual dining with larger groups. I can imagine that back patio calling to me, and same goes for that semi-outdoor dining space that flanks the front and side of the restaurant.

With an endless procession of chips and salsa, cheap tequila flights and an outstanding taco menu, Wild Salsa is a decent option for catching up with a group of friends. Drink specials run every day from 3 to 9 p.m., and while the beer list sticks to the usual suspects, the tequila selection makes up for it with more than 70 añejos, blancos and resposados, and even a couple of mezcals.

The waitstaff is exemplary. My server one night was polite, quick and knowledgeable of the menu, fielding a barrage of questions with humble but informed responses. You'd expect these service qualities at finer dining establishments, but they're a nice surprise here, where the food skews away from Texas and leans more toward Mexico, elevating the Chili's standard, but not too far. After all, the menus at Wild Salsa are still laminated — protection from those errant salsa drips from uncontrolled tortilla chips.

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