If the crowds at Mejico Cocina Mejicana are any indication, there's room for another Mexican restaurant in Phoenix.
And if the well-prepared, northern Mexican-inspired fare there is a guarantee, this cool, contemporary restaurant, opened in February in the old Linda's space, ought to be around for a long time.
Mejico is the brainchild of Obed de la Cruz, of the same family who brought us El Sol Mexican Café and Bakery and El Zocalo Mexican Grill. Stylish yet humble, its décor is entirely kitschfree. I was thrilled not to have to watch the staff prepare my food in a trendy open kitchen, and pleased not to see a single sombrero hanging on any wall. The smallish dining room is dwarfed by a full bar, which seemed like a misstep when a menu of better cervezas and a solid tequila list might have been enough. Specialty cocktails include the Pamplona, which was meant to be a hybrid of margarita and Greyhound but tasted soapy and slightly medicinal. The Cucumber Fresco was a refreshing mix of vodka, simple syrup, and cucumber. If I'd been traveling by taxi, I might have ordered three more.
Like its décor, Mejico's food is presented neatly and with no pretense. Dishes are prepared with standard meats like pork, beef, or chicken; I noted no gluten-free fare. Nicely chewy tortillas are prepared from scratch (as are the rice and beans) and dishes are spiced with traditional central Mexican ingredients like poblanos, chipotle, and jalapeño.
Spiciness is relatively mild compared to many Mexican cuisines; I found the food I ordered to be neither too spicy nor not hot enough. Among the smallish selection of main courses, few were disappointing. My waiter was congenial and attentive, and while I would have liked a slower pacing, no course arrived while I was finishing another.
A bowl of chips aren't a gratis given here, but I ordered them with nicely limed guacamole, and with a monkey bowl of neatly smoky red salsa, and finally with hot queso, spicy with delicious Spanish chorizo. The chips are substantial, cut thick and perfectly salted, and the salsa is darkly spicy but not too hot. The guacamole takes a chopped-salad approach to the traditional avocado dip, tarted up with cotija cheese and perfectly tossed with just enough onion and garlic.
The tender, flavorful carne asada was sliced thin and paired with helpings of rice, beans, tortillas, and guacamole.
Intended as an entrée, I ordered it as an appetizer and found it an estimable starter, cooked medium rare as requested and nicely heated up with a char-roasted poblano chile.
Chile verde featured simmered, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of pork in a piquant green sauce. I'd have preferred it served in a bowl, stew-fashion, rather than glopped on a plate alongside foil-wrapped tortillas. All of Mejico's dishes could use some presentational sprucing up, in fact.
I forgot what my food looked like once I dug into the mole de pollo, however. I like my mole to have a subtle hint of chocolate and not to taste like a sundae sauce. Mejico's is made with peanut butter, which gave me pause until I tasted it. The subtle, nutty flavor gave a new kick to a dish I've eaten dozens of times before. Wonderful, smoky layers of flavor with just the right touch of sweetness bound a tender breast of boneless chicken served with more rice that needed warming and a ramekin of pinto beans, spicily sauced and firm but tender -- a nice change from the usual refried mash buried under a fistful of shredded cheese that's the standard at so many Mexican diners. (Black beans are also an option.)
I love a good enchilada, and Mejico's, which come two to an order, are superb. Enchiladas de res, slow-cooked, tender shredded beef wrapped in a superb corn tortilla, were sauced (and fortunately not drowned) in a mellow red sauce with hints of chile. On another visit, I ordered enchiladas pollo, an even better enchilada dish with a perfect blend of tender white meat chicken and tart green tomatillo sauce and dolloped with velvety crema Mejicana.
I'm glad I was unable to resist the flan. Dense and sweet, crusted with burnt sugar and served with a side of whipped cream drizzled with caramel, it was the single menu item delivered with any sort of presentation: the name of the restaurant, drizzled on the plate in caramel sauce.
Mejico's entrées are a little pricey for a small East Osborn restaurant that skimps on presentation. But a little tweaking (like a little fire under that rice) ought to provide the finetuning necessary to make this new restaurant an old tradition.
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Mejico Cocina Mejicana 2333 East Osborn Road 6029564420
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; cantina open until midnight on Saturday