The tagline on the menu at MesoMaya promises “an adventure into the fresh, bold, and earthy flavors of authentic interior Mexican cuisine.” I asked the waiter what that meant. “It is the food from where I come from,” he said, without telling me where he came from. “It is not like what you find at Mi Cocina. It is real Mexican food.”
Maybe his oversimplified explanation is all you need to know when you peruse MesoMaya’s menu, filled as it is with trendy items such as mole, guajillo, and pozole. But alarms went off in my head when a basket of warm chips and a bowl of salsa were set on the table. This ritual isn’t performed in the interior regions of Mexico; it’s a play straight out of a Tex-Mex handbook.
Most of the dishes served at MesoMaya are Tex-Mex classics disguised as Mexican food. Is that a bad thing? On one hand, I feel it does a disservice to local chefs who are busting their oxtails and pocket books to put out the real deal. On the other hand, MesoMaya’s Mike Karns, who also owns the El Fenix chain, could prove himself a genius. Perhaps he has figured out how to sell real Mexican food without actually making it. He has seduced mobs of eager diners into his new restaurant in the Preston Forest Shopping Center and tricked them into thinking they are eating authentic Mexican food. Smartly, he and chef Nico Sanchez (Cuba Libre), have included a few earthy Mexican flavors in some of the dishes listed alongside carne asada, brisket tacos, and chicken enchiladas. Perhaps his half-Tex-Mex-half-Mex-Mex scheme is the perfect long-range plan to wean stubborn Dallas diners from combination plates laden with yellow cheese and sour cream.
Over the past year, new “authentic, regional” Mexican restaurants such as Mesa, Komali, Alma, Wild Salsa, and Mi Dia have joined the ranks of established places such as Maximo, El Ranchito, and Veracruz. All of them struggle to break Dallas’ addiction to Tex-Mex. Alma, owned by Tristan Simon’s Consilient Restaurants, closed this fall after being open just eight months. “The cost of preparing this food is something our customer was not willing to pay for,” Simon says. “They don’t understand the work that goes into our enchiladas.” A plate of Alma’s enchiladas sold for $19.
Karns has done his homework. He’s not taking risks with high food costs at MesoMaya. Unfortunately, it shows.
Enchiladas here are $11, and entrées top out at $19. That gets you the “bold and earthy” flavors of a pan-roasted striped bass served with red cabbage and mango relish. Sarcasm aside, Karns and Sanchez hope that the gringos who order the tame seafood dish might also try a side of the more exotic-sounding elote. Once they’re comfortable with elote (simply a mixture of creamed corn and queso fresco), they might try a bite of pollo con mole. MesoMaya’s version is safe. It’s light. If I close my eyes while eating it, I can imagine the genuine version served in Oaxaca. Maybe in a few years Dallas diners will think of mole as the marinara sauce of Mexico, and MesoMaya will be perfectly positioned to become the Maggiano’s of Mexican food.
In the meantime, chef Sanchez needs to watch how much salt comes out of his kitchen. His brisket enchiladas left the tender skin behind my lips red and swollen. My face puckers just thinking of it now. What sounded like a refined offering was quite the opposite. Slow-roasted brisket, rolled in a blue corn tortilla with a poblano pepper, is topped with a thick, brown guajillo sauce. Then someone in the kitchen uses a squeeze bottle to zigzag white cream sauce across the top until the mess looks like a mud pile covered with graffiti. The plate is loaded to the edges with mounds of salty rice and beans—just like a typical Tex-Mex combo plate. I couldn’t swallow the third bite; I spit it into my napkin.
When I returned for round two, I was surprised to find an hour wait at 6:30 pm. We were handed a pager and settled into a tight spot at the bar. The crowd was three deep, and the bartenders were shaking cocktails. A house margarita (sin sal!) was nothing special, but the avocado and pineapple concoction made with Partida silver tequila was innovative and thirst quenching. The fresh cucumber margarita is also worth its $9 price tag.
From our seat at the bar, we could survey the action in the open kitchen. I’m not sure this setup is a good idea at MesoMaya, especially when the place is slammed. Watching line cooks wipe sweat from their brows with their forearms made me rethink how the food I’d eaten earlier was actually salted. The whole cooking line is exposed, and the energy from workers bouncing around sauté pans flashing with fire radiates throughout the dining room. I found a quieter view by the front door, where I watched a woman make corn masa into fresh corn tortillas.
Our pager flashed, and we were seated at a table in the front room. There, large windows swing open and create an indoor-outdoor patio. This section is separated from the main dining room by a half wall with cheap pots of fake plants and little clay statues of Aztec warriors running across the top of the divider. The floor is terrazzo. The sounds of crashing plates and laughing customers ricochet from every angle and pierce your eardrums. I couldn’t hear our server from across the table.
She obviously didn’t care to hear me either. She handed us our menus and stood there waiting to take our order. I asked for a few minutes, and that is exactly what she gave me. Once we ordered, our betabeles (translation: beet salad) arrived 45 seconds later. (I timed it.) The wilted lettuce must have been prearranged and stored on a shelf in the hot kitchen. The cubes of red and gold beets were as sparse as the promised hearts of palm and pumpkin seeds. The mass was overly dressed with an oily guajillo vinaigrette.
Minutes after the salad plates disappeared, the entrées arrived. The house specialty Budin Azteca, sold to us as “Mexican lasagna,” was precisely that: layers of corn tortillas, pulled chicken, queso Chihuahua, and black beans, all simmering in a roasted tomatillo sauce. Instead of the soft, almost pudding-like texture of an authentic budin, MesoMaya’s version is dry, and the tortillas, which could have been softened with some stock, stuck to the roof of my mouth. And, once again, the portion size was ridiculous. Two people couldn’t have
But the most baffling blunder was the pozole de puerco. When done correctly, this hearty guajillo pepper-based broth is filled with tender morsels of pork and luscious kernels of hominy, and the condiments of dry oregano, sliced radishes, and white cabbage are served on the side. To cut costs, the rust-colored soup at MesoMaya is delivered already assembled, with a layer of grease glistening on the surface. A handful of sliced cabbage and four (yes, we counted) brown kernels of hominy thickened the thin liquid. But the kitchen spared no expense on the salt. When our server picked up the full bowl, she asked, “Did you save room for dessert?”
We had enough room to walk across the parking lot to Torchy’s Tacos and eat an entire meal. Instead we ordered flan and crepas con cajeta, two classic Mexican desserts served all over town. How anyone could screw up a flan in a Mexican restaurant is beyond me, but the version I was served twice at MesoMaya wouldn’t pass muster in a prison cafeteria. The skimpy pie slice of custard was rubbery and slid around my mouth like a tablespoon of Crisco. The folded crepes were so thick that we had to use a knife to cut them. The caramel sauce was as gooey as jam, and the vanilla bean ice cream was overly sweet. Rather than eat it, I submerged my spoon in the ice cream and applied the cold metal to my red, salty lips.
I hope Karns and Sanchez get their act together. Their attempt to serve Mexican food at a relatively affordable price is noble. People in Dallas don’t think twice about spending $50 for an 8-ounce filet or $7 for a baked potato, but they balk at $19 for enchiladas or $25 for a fancy pasta dish. At MesoMaya, you get what you pay for: faux Mexican food. But maybe—just maybe—it’ll push people in the right direction. The next chance they get to try the bold, earthy flavors of the real deal, they’ll think of it as a finer dining experience.
For more information about MesoMaya, visit our restaurant guide.