Back in the kitchen, the chefs at El Vato Tequila and Taco Bar grill up only antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and angus beef for their tacos, fajitas, and piñatas, all part of their commitment to humanely raised food. They also give vegans a chance to taste their Mexican street tacos and gooey quesadillas by offering the option of Smart Ground veggie protein and Daiya non-dairy cheese for any of their dishes. Liquid sustenance is just as important as the food here, and bartenders can be found pouring blanco, reposado, and anejo tequilas or mixing margaritas with ingredients such as lime juice, fresh cucumber, or chipotle spices. The Miami New Times described the eatery’s decor as a “Tijuana dive re-imagined as a backdrop for a music video,” thanks to the graffiti-like artwork behind the bar and the Buick Riveria-turned-banquette in the dining room.
Custom Mexican feasts bursting with fresh ingredients populate Salsa Fiesta’s lengthy menu, which teams up with seven house-made salsas to swathe palates in authentic south-of-the-border flavors. After selecting a protein-packed filling such as spice-spiked carnitas and seasoned fish, diners can top their burritos or tacos with fixings that include hot-tamale salsa and roasted corn. Pico de gallo and guacamole flank sizzling chicken and roasted peppers in the fiesta-fajita specialty, and the tostones fiesta bowl wakes taste buds from siesta naps by tossing them into a thick pool filled with crispy tostones, beans, pico de gallo, and sour cream. Swollen with velvety chocolate, whipped cream, and swirls of dulce de leche, a crunchy mayan roll prophesies an imminent doomsday for dessert cravings.
Alma Mexicana's tasty treasures abound within the crunchy cover of taco shells and the aurally surreptitious soft shield of tortillas depicted on the sizable menu. Wake up sleeping stomachs with huevos con chorizo, two scrambled eggs bulked up with mexican sausage in a heap of beans, pico de gallo, and tortillas ($8.50), a decidedly pleasant alternative to starting the day by digesting a cymbal monkey. Alma's mealmakers build the chile relleno by roasting fresh poblano peppers, packing them with melted cheese, and painting them in egg batter and homemade green sauce ($12). The cuisine engineers also craft tortas ($7.50)—a Mexican version of the layered culinary classic commonly known as the sandwich—stuffed with a choice of four meats, including steak and marinated pork, and accented with the creamy drawl of guacamole and mayonnaise. An arsenal of other south-of-the-border staples, such as more than a dozen different burritos ($4.50–$7.75), a trio of quesadillas ($3–$4.50), and seven substantially savory combination plates ($10–$12), rounds out the menu.
Cinco Cantina & Tequila Bar's agave-savvy staff pours artisan tequilas at a bar softly lit by punched-tin lanterns. Duos or quartets of tasters sample three shots of blanco, anejo, and reposado tequilas crafted in small batches by respected distillers such as Don Julio and Tres Generaciones. Spiced chips surf creamy waves of classic guacamole between sips as patrons strain to overhear salsa-themed knock-knock jokes whispered by brightly colored masks on the walls.
Chef Zé Carlos Jiménez's whole career is a balancing act. As a child growing up in Cuautia Morelos, Mexico, he spent his afternoons in a de facto apprenticeship in his grandmother's kitchen. He watched her roll handmade tortillas and tinker with spices before finding just the right blend to balance out her homespun dinners. As an adult, Chef Zé Carlos treats his own kitchen as a playground, paying homage to his grandmother's family recipes while fusing traditional Mexican street food and fine dining—a style he calls New Mexican Gourmet Cuisine.
The menu—complete with a touching epigraph to Meche, his grandmother—is a compendium of his attempts to blend the two worlds. On the haute end of the spectrum are dishes like the Nopales salad, brimming with pickled cactus and his own housemade vinagrette. Fish-and-shrimp tacos sprinkled with fresh cilantro hold down the street-food side of the culinary fort. Where the menu shines, though, is somewhere in the middle, with dishes such as the molcajetes—Spanish for "stone mortar." The upscale take on Mexican comfort food blends beef or shrimp in the eponymous stone dish along with the tastebud-tingling flavors of nopales, chorizo, and roasted tomato-tomatillo sauce.
Though it’s a national brand with locations sprinkled across 14 states, Chevys Fresh Mex doesn’t succumb to shortcuts at any of its restaurants. The expert chefs at each eatery gather together fresh ingredients to prepare the entire menu from scratch, whether they’re infusing chicken enchiladas with chipotles or simmering fragrant cauldrons of their homemade tortilla soup. Even though this hands-on approach harkens back to the foundations of Mexican culinary traditions, chefs also give each dish a contemporary twist—tacos meet flavorful drizzles of chipotle aioli, slow-roasted carnitas mingle with fresh oranges and lemons alongside fajita platters. Meanwhile, bartenders engage in serious agave innovation with top-shelf margaritas in flavors such as prickly pear and spicy mango.