Owner and head chef of Viva Mexican Grill and Tequileria, Carlos Mendez grew up in Mexico watching his mother and aunts as they concocted labor-intensive food without batting an eye. He would even venture off to the countryside to collect any wild mushrooms they might need. Now at his restaurant, he keeps his culinary traditions alive with his menu of Central Mexican cuisine. Fresh guacamole made table-side prepare palates for forthcoming entrees. Handmade masa pancakes topped with queso fresco join slow-cooked pork carnitas and tricolor plates of chilis en nogada with creamy walnut sauce. Thirteen types of margaritas and chilled coladas and daiquiris cool tongues coated in hot spices.
The festive decor of earthy deep blues, red clay tiles and adobe-colored walls also pays tribute to his homeland, as does a mariachi band. These musicians rove between tables, serenading diners with romantic string and vocal harmonies and the occasional rap battle.
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.
Inside Sierras, an antlered chandelier overlooks cream tile-plated tables, ocean blue floors, and walls festooned with antlered skulls and colorful plates in pale blues and vibrant reds. The meals are just as colorful, from the dollops of sour cream, pico de gallo, and chili that top a tower of homemade corn nachos to the roasted red peppers, sweet corn, and Monterey jack cheese that pops out of burritos.
As their name implies, the staff at Blue Agave mix up margaritas using blue agave tequila and a dash of French orange liquor. Their bar also brims with Mexican sodas, sangria, and imported beer. While cooks craft dishes such sizzling fajitas and enchiladas topped with mole, servers make guacamole table-side after opening avocados with a search warrant. The restaurant also features a private salon where guests can host parties and enjoy a buffet of savory and sweet items.
Before he could call himself a master of Mexican cooking, chef Jim Fahey knew what he had to do. He went straight to the source, traveling extensively throughout Mexico and picking up new skills wherever he could—in restaurants, at street vendors’ carts, and even in the kitchens of local homes. After more than 30 years as a chef, Fahey has found what it takes to craft Mexican food the right way. His discoveries abroad compelled him to open Habanero’s Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, where he crafts dishes that are healthy, fresh, and simple. Take, for example, his guacamole. Whether infused with chipotle or topped with salsa and Mexican cheese, every bowl of the creamy dip is made to order. The same goes for the enchiladas and burritos, the latter of which can only reasonably be eaten with a knife and fork or two sharpened oars. Fahey is also an expert in tequila, as his menu of nearly 100 premium variations will attest. The agave spirits are served in margaritas, flights, or shot glasses.
Guadalajara, nestled in the state of Jalisco, was the birthplace of many of the flavors used in Mexican food. Those influences shine through in the recipes at Taqueria Mexico, where the chefs draw on family recipes brought by over from the inventive city. The dishes have helped earn the eatery very good to excellent ratings on Zagat.
As at any good taqueria, the gorditas, tacos, tortas, and burritos can be stuffed with a wide range of meats and veggies. Carnitas, pork traditionally slow cooked with green chilies, is nearly as tender as steamed beef al vapor. Lengua, or beef tongue, is also a time-tested taqueria meat. And like the dependents section of a scarecrow’s taxes, the eatery’s quesadillas brim with squash.