One might leave Red Lulu Cocina & Tequila Bar, which was named this year's best new restaurant north of Boston by Boston Magazine, with some sense of the broad scope of Mexican cuisine, geography, and culture. That epiphany might come from the selection of 180 tequilas, which slip down in shots, release bell peals of clicking ice in glasses, or blend with lime in thick margaritas rimmed with salt. The tantalizing menu also parades traditional Mexican ingredients, though they are tangled into surprising configurations.
Red chandeliers glow, bringing to life the colors of chipotle peppers on plates at plush black booth seating, all beneath red wallpaper. In the tequila lounge, ample couches create a circle around red, candlelit tables for resting a glass of sangria or a mojito muddled with strawberries or cucumber. A row of inset shadowboxes displays the colorful lucha libre masks typically used in overblown battles and attempts to go out in public without being recognized as Kevin Bacon.
Back when Cilantro opened in 2002, Boston Magazine praised the eatery for its "authentic, hearty, and diverse Mexican specialties," which they called "breaths of fresh air." More than a decade later, owner and executive chef Esther Marin still aims to keep her lunch, dinner, and dessert menus interesting, creating new recipes that infuse Mediterranean flavors into upscale Mexican dishes. Using only all-natural ingredients, she crafts entrees that range from cheese-stuffed meatballs in chipotle sauce to pork chops crowned with chihuahua cheese and pineapples. A selection of 48 tequilas wash down meals inside a dining room wrapped in exposed brick walls that keep diner’s conversations from escaping the restaurant.
Border Cafe is ostensibly named after the border between the United States and Mexico. Dig a little deeper into the legend, however, and you’ll find that the restaurant’s history lies squarely on the border between truth and mythology. It all started with a man named Jose Creole—at least that was what people called him when he emigrated from Mexico to Louisiana in the 1930s. He didn’t just bring plain old Mexican food with him; instead, he combined his recipes with the Cajun soul food of his new neighbors in Lake Charles, and a legend was born. Jose Creole’s blend of Mexican and Cajun cuisines is now the cornerstone of Border Cafe, where chefs honor tradition by preparing his spicy dishes from scratch. The menu features fusion specialties that would be hard to find elsewhere, such as blackened-catfish fajitas and crawfish quesadillas. Even the margaritas are a bit offbeat—the New Orleans version is blended with Cointreau and served over chilled Mardi Gras beads.
The chefs at Acapulcos Mexican Family Restaurant & Cantina aim to cook authentic Mexican dishes unaltered by any Tex-Mex influence. Their recipes reach back generations within the owners' family and several miles into their underground tortilla vaults. Spanish-speaking servers deliver simple combinations of protein or veggies, topped with vibrant sauces: carne asada steak dressed in green pepper and guacamole, tender pork loin in tomatillo sauce, chicken in chocolate mole. The chefs' adherence to tradition doesn't preclude experimentation. Case in point: the dessert burrito, a lightly fried tortilla wrapped around apple-cinnamon or creamy cheesecake filling.
Both the menu and the decor change slightly from location to location?a painting of Mexico here, a tiled mosaic there. Each one, however, has a full bar where bartenders mix margaritas and flat-screen TVs broadcasting sports overhead.
In the dark of night, the brightly lit façades of The Fat Cactus locations glow like a beacon, beckoning diners to come and sample their classic Mexican and Tex-Mex foods. The restaurants' interiors are no less eye-catching. House-specialty fazzizzles—short for sizzling fajitas—top tables in dining rooms filled with vibrant reds and yellows. Rows of hubcaps glisten on walls next to strings of lights. And hundreds of emptied tequila bottles dangle from the ceiling, testament to the popularity of the menu's dozen specialty margaritas. For extra entertainment, musicians fill ears with their tuneful crooning every night, and a room with classic arcade games lets kids play at adult tasks, such as driving a car or helping zombies file their tax returns.