The Mex Best Thing
Authentic, Schmentic--Bring On The Chile-and Cheese-Covered Corn
Mex took over the space in the Power Plant Live! complex formerly held by Lucille’s, and before that, Bill Bateman’s Bistro. If nothing else, Mex has handsomely solved the problems inherent in the warehouse dimensions. It’s tricked out nice, bursting with whimsically slick designs and super-chic fixtures. A new central bar effectively divides the space into two equally sized dining areas. Tables nestle into the accordion folds of the side walls, which sport bold stenciled designs and built-in museum display cases, each of which holds a single outsize object: a santo, a holster, a riata. Installed in one room is one of those big-party tables that can be privatized with a tall white curtain. In another is a stage, DJ booth, and leathery lounge area, with carpeting an architect friend insists was released to the public, like, yesterday.
Mex looks like very sophisticated minds were assembled and given a lavish budget to make the space work as both a casual dining space and the posh, youthful night spot that it must morph into every night to pay the rent. And then, it feels as though another crackerjack team was brought in to figure out what to do about the menu. You can imagine what went on in their meetings—meticulous presentations about price points, respectful debates about authenticity, repeated admonitions to “keep things simple.” The final product: Mex’s single-page, placemat-style menu. It truly comes across as less the organic product of a born restaurateur than a business-minded calculation. This is not a capital crime. Some born restaurateurs are slobs, and some of the calculations here add up nicely.
Keeping the menu small makes sense: three kinds of tacos ($7.50 each), three kinds of burritos ($8.75; each can be converted into a chimichanga for a dollar more), one basic fajita with a choice of fillings ($12.50), and three house specialties—stacked enchiladas, grilled skirt steak, and red snapper (all $13). Too bad the menu committee banished pork from the menu; one or two pork options would be nice. (Do note, some of the menu writing is annoying—viz., the weird use of the word “several” [“several large shrimp,” “several flour tortillas”] and the confusing substitution of the term “Mexas” for “Mexico.”) Offering guacamole ($6.75, serves two) prepared tableside, especially considering the demise of Joy America Café—which pretty much owned that trick—is a smart idea, and Mex’s preparation is just as fresh, impressive, and satisfying. Maybe more so—I don’t remember Joy America offering the availability of extra heat from habanero peppers.
Intermittently, authentic elements appear: grated cojita cheese on the refried beans; crème Americana on the fish tacos (oops, the kitchen forgot to put it on when ordered); a flaming, tequila-splashed Mexican cheese appetizer (all apps $6.75), which proved to be not as interesting to eat as to think about. But judging from the ceviche, the general impulse not to go authentic was probably a good idea. Mex’s version tasted only of citrus and was served sloppily, with too much liquid sitting in its martini glass. On the other hand, I loved loved loved something called el corn, three grilled ears of corn smeared with ground chiles and cojita cheese—sweet, hot, crunchy, gritty, head-smackingly simple. It currently tops the list for best new appetizer 2006.
The main plates tried were satisfactory; think of them as stuff to sustain yourself while drinking Mex’s good, big, reasonably priced margaritas ($4.75 for the basic version). The “overstuffed” carne asada burrito needed more cheese, the steak needed more marinade flavor, the pico de gallo needed to be sharper—and the whole thing needed much less Mexican rice. Steak tacos similarly skimped on steak, and the steak was likewise under-treated. The fish tacos needed most of all the cilantro and crème Americana noted on the menu but also bigger strips of mahi-mahi than served. Fajitas, though, with our choice of chicken, were a fine specimen of the sizzling heap of grilled stuff that endears them to diners and home cooks.
While it lacks the neighborly warmth of Holy Frijoles and Nacho Mamas, Mex does have much more room to spread out and an almost appealing jock-y sort of urban vibe. The service is raggedy, though, and it’d be nice to see a manager vigilantly roaming the rooms. Ultimately, though, you’ll either feel like a member of Mex’s target market or not.