Picture this: Two serious Tex-Mex fans are talking about the state of refried beans in Dallas over a couple of Tecates at whatever bar. These are some real enchilada heads, ruminating on the days when singular families owned El Fenix and El Chico. "Remember when Mi Cocina was actually good?" asks Enchilada Head No. 1. And by all accounts, it was. But by the time Mi Cocina made it all the way to Maryland, something had gotten lost in translation. It's like the salsa had been watered down a little more with each subsequent location.
The same Tex-Mex fans are likely to lament the state of Mico Rodriguez's restaurants if he grows his brand too quickly. Rodriguez helped create the Mi Cocina empire before leaving the group to open Mr. Mesero on his own in 2011. The Mexican-meets-American menu has succeeded where the breastaurant Burger Girl and a Lombardi family concept La Cubanita both previously failed on McKinney Avenue. Nearly three years later, the patio framed by flowing white fabric is still packed with drinking diners.
Ditto for Mesero Miguel, which opened the following year, this time on Henderson, where Cuba Libre and Lemon Bar had previously tanked. Here, Mesero Miguel does brisk business in the evenings, with tacos, enchiladas and a number of decent ceviches. The restaurant, along with Sissy's, Hibiscus and Victor Tangos, draws Uptowners west of Central Expressway.
5330 W. Lovers Lane, No. 112B, 214-654-0185. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $$$
Puerco passilla $15.95
Braised pork $16.95
Fish tacos $10.96
Carne asada $21.95
Rodriguez's third, Mesero, opened this summer in the Inwood Village, and from the look of the dining room it's enjoying similar success. On a recent Friday at 8 p.m., the place is packed with Preston Hollow locals filling the place with loud chatter, nearly every one of them with a drink in hand. The hostess is quoting a 45-minute wait and the bar is clogged with patrons clamoring for real estate, and they spill out into the dining room amidst the tables and chairs. It's loud, something like a train station at rush hour. You can talk to your friends across the table, but only if you lean in and concentrate.
It's a beautiful space. Chiclet tiles line the walls that frame an open kitchen faced by a bar. It's a great place to eat if you're alone because the bustling cooks and food runners will keep you entertained. But if you've brought a date, the stools are bolted to the floor, impossibly far away from each other. You'd be better off at the bar, where the drinks are made and the seating is free for adjustment.
In the back, a white mosaic smacks of commercial modern art, and the high ceilings boast enough speakers to push a dance floor full of partiers into action. They play everything — really, everything — from ambient tracks that fade into the dining din to ... is that "California Love"?
Keep it rocking with a tart margarita with a salted rim, and expect a menu that closely mirrors the first Mesero restaurants with a few new dishes. Fans of classic Tex-Mex will recognize the enchiladas in green chicken, cheese with chili and other versions, along with brisket tacos and beans, and rice that shows up with various seasonings depending on what you've ordered. (Green is by far the best.)
There is queso (there will always be queso), one featuring white cheese and small bits of artichokes and spinach and another with sharp cheddar and plenty of chiles.
Dishes like these stoke every Tex-Mex memory ever experienced, only with better, fresher ingredients. Tables normally painted in browns, grays and faded yellows pop with fresh and vibrant reds and greens. The food here is alive compared to your typical lard-laden bean pit.
Which is why it's a shame when the dishes are delivered inconsistently. Those enchiladas were piping hot while I was dining at the bar but cool to the touch when I sat in the dining room. Carne asada arrived overcooked and a shrimp ceviche wasn't a ceviche at all, but a shrimp salad of fully cooked shellfish, lifeless and desperately in need of lime.
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Halibut was overcooked one night too, pulling apart in dry, bone-white flakes. Better to stick with the stewed pork dishes, which make use of fatty cuts and can stand up better to careless cooking. Puerco passilla swims in a sweet chile sauce that recalls a mole, and the braised pork, which features fattier meat, shows up even more tender and richly flavored. Most of the meat dishes come with flour and oily corn tortillas. Choose the flour.
Maybe these are the plates that fill Mesero's dining room with diners every night of the week. Certainly it's easy to get lost here in a bowl of queso, too, especially with a cerveza sweating in your palm. When the temperature starts to dip in the evening, the massive windows open to let the outside in, making the first few rows of tables a stunning spot to dine.
But a boisterous room downing spotty food points to an interesting conundrum facing Mesero, Mi Cocina and, really, every Tex-Mex restaurant still standing in the Dallas area. If owners can pack dining rooms with tepid chili cheese enchiladas, what's the incentive to push quality and continuously improve? It's easy to see why the bigger chains slide further into mediocre ingredient sourcing and execution when there is very little incentive to do otherwise. I hoped Rodriguez could resist.
Maybe the execution at Mesero tightens and eventually falls in line with Rodriguez's previous two restaurants. Until that happens, and maybe even regardless, somewhere out in Dallas, the Tex-Mex hipsters will voice their dissent. "I liked this queso better when you could only get it at the original Mr. Mesero," Enchilada Head No.1 will still say to Enchilada Head No. 2. For the moment, anyway, he'll be right.