And the pair of salsas -- one a mild concoction of jalapeños and onions dubbed Nuevo Leon salsa -- tasted stale, or at least a little off, as if they had been sitting and stewing for a time.
On a subsequent visit, these same salsas were fresh and lively: The tomato salsa was rich and robust, while the Nuevo Leon stuff was brisk and tangy.
But the stumbles continued. Ceviche ($6.95), generally a stellar Nuevo Leon performer, struggled mightily with weariness and indifference. Fragments of fish and scallop marinated in lime juice were mushy, indistinct, and off-tasting instead of freshly firm.
Sides edging a few of the plates were forgettable too. The vegetable medley, plugged with canned corn and mushrooms, was speckled with mottled slices of slimy squash and zucchini. Mexican rice was dry and uninspiring. Salad, a concoction of lettuce, cabbage, red onion, and jicama shreds with tortilla strips, was made limp and pasty by a cilantro dressing. Refried beans streaked with cheese were watery and bland.
Yet pollo en vino ($8.95 lunch), a white-wine pan-roasted chicken breast, was delicately sumptuous. The chicken taco ($2.95) had generous hunks of dank, tasty breast meat. In fact, chicken seems to steal the limelight here. Shredded poultry strewn generously over the chalupas ($7.95) -- crisp fried tostadas spread with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream -- was juicy and savory.
Meat didn't fare badly either. Though perhaps a little tough and dry, the arrachera steak ($9.95 lunch), a skirt steak slathered in Nuevo Leon sauce (tomatoes, jalapeños, and spices) and topped with gooey cheese, was rich with flavor from the beef. The accompanying cheese enchilada, draped in velvety, rich pasilla (a dark, medium-hot chile) sauce, was decadent despite its simplicity.
But de marisco ($12.95) -- thin crepes stuffed with fish, scallops, and tiny shrimp doused in a watery chipotle pepper sauce -- was dismal. Chunks of fishy fish and rubbery shrimp waddled in the cold, runny sauce, creating a soggy mess.
Founded by Luis Ramirez and David Treviño, Nuevo Leon melds dishes from South-Central Mexico, a lush region famous for its fiery spices and guisos (meat and sauce with chiles and vegetables), and the arid Northeastern region famous for its charcoal-grilled steaks. The first unit opened in Farmers Branch in 1994, and a second followed on Greenville Avenue in 1997. This location at Oak Lawn and Hall, in the space that was formerly an extension of the Oak Cliff Italian restaurant Vitto, is approaching its first anniversary.
And their Mexican food, inspired by family recipes, is generally stellar. Yet as they sprout new boughs, it seems they've neglected to deepen their roots: Nuevo Leon is getting a little rough around the edges.