There is much Mexican mediocrity out there, a hundred menus that all look the same, and a general unwillingness to explore the world of authentic Mexican food. Variations mostly came in weird combinations, like an arroz con pollo I had that combined strips of chicken breast, rice, frozen broccoli and carrots, and cheese sauce. I wish instead some owners would offer the cooking of their home regions, or more imaginative meldings of American and Mexican. There are only a few of those.
Still, Mexican as we know it is a fine way to fill up cheap, and there's probably a Mexican restaurant near you. But you might go out of your way for the following, which I think are a step above.
The big combo plates:
There are what I think of as the combination-plate Mexican restaurants, which serve big plates of filling beans and tortillas and rice and avocados, cheddar cheese and lettuce in various combinations. They are brightly decorated, have huge menus, bring you free chips and salsa, and they can be a little hard to distinguish from each other. I've been to a large number of these recently, favoring ones that have more than one location.
A mini-chain. Generous portions, fresh food, tasty. I ate a lot of chiles rellenos in the course of this project, thinking it was a good test of a restaurant's skill. Most, frankly, were bad. The one here was the very best: lightly fried but still crisp, lightly sauced; not overly cheesy. Great carved furniture.
Hot chips with salsa, lots of steaks and fajitas and excellent carnitas.
This is probably mentioned to me more frequently than any other Mexican restaurant and is always busy. Huge menu, with more interesting, creative variations on dishes than many. Friendly servers.
Then there are the hip Mexican restaurants that take Mexican classics and do something new and culinarily interesting with them.
Mexican food is the perfect cuisine for today's way of eating out: it's casual, tasty and can be exotic. Add a modern, fun atmosphere, great drinks, attention to serving something a little different, and a little higher quality, and you've got one of the most popular restaurants in town. Love the cazuelas, little iron pots filled with braised stews.
It's ridiculously crowded, it's loud, and sometimes you have to wait for a table. But the food is good, cheap and interesting. They do a taco with huitlacoche - that's a mushroom that grows on corn - as well as short ribs, pastor and braised pork tacos, a nice milanesa torta, and their tribute to the Cashes, the Johnny and June salads.
This place really has legs. It has been around for a couple of decades, and though it has changed ownership and the menu has evolved, it's still what it started as: a sophisticated Southwestern/Mexican restaurant with authentic flavors and interesting variations on traditional dishes. Their blue-corn tortilla enchiladas with beef filling, black beans, and a dark, rich mole sauce is a study in darkness, and is absolutely delicious. They're also well-known for their fajitas, which come with a wide variety of fillings, meat, seafood and vegetarian.
Cincinnati Mexican Restaurants - An authentic taste:
The last category is made up of Mexican restaurants that serve double corn-tortilla tacos, tortas, tongue and menudo, often frequented by Mexicans. I think of them as the authentic Mexican retaurants, though I'm not sure I've ever come across a Mexican restaurant that didn't claim to be "authentic."
Their tacos - on fresh, pliable corn tortillas, dressed only with onion, lots of cilantro and lime wedges - are fabulous. Especially the tortillas themselves. They also have menudo and pozole on the weekend, and a short, sweet menu of authentic simple Mexican food including enchiladas, milanese and stews. Bare-bones decor.
It started as a small taqueria in Fairfield for a Mexican clientele; when they moved Downtown, they found a bigger audience, especially when they started booking bands and making great Mexican drinks. Forgive me, but I love their cheese sauce.
Homemade gorditas, like extra-thick tortillas, stuffed with beans, crumbly Mexican cheese and whatever kind of meat you want, are delicious here. You can stuff them with al pastor, which is essentially pork mixed with chopped pineapple, carne asada, tongue, chicken, you name it. Also justifiably known for their big burritos.
This tiny place is for anyone who cultivates an appreciation for scruffy, hole-in-the-wall, authentic joints and doesn't need to order a chimichanga. Most of the customers at a recent lunchtime were speaking Spanish. It's in a little strip next to a convenience store just off the highway in Covington. There's a telenova on TV and guava nectar in the drinks case. They have tacos with meat, cilantro and onions, and t they have guaraches, or you could say "huaraches," which are extra-thick, extra-large tortillas, covered with meat, lettuce and fresh crumbled cheese. Delicious.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.