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New Mesón just needs a tweak in presentation

Chef expands fresh approach that uses her mother's recipes from popular, counter-only taqueria to a sit-down restaurant

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Thao Nguyen photos FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN Jewel-like pomegranate seeds glow in the walnut-almond-sherry sauce of chile relleno en nogada, top. Cochinita pibil, bottom, is a longtime favorite from El Mesón's first location.

Nobody stumbles across the original El Mesón. If you've had the pleasure of enjoying lunch at the small taqueria on Burleson Road, it's most likely because you were looking for it. Or possibly lost heading to or from the airport.     

The fact that the simple counter-service restaurant set in the industrial sprawl of southeast Austin has been open for more than 10 years serves as testament to the quality of chef Marisela Godinez's food.

When Godinez was a child growing up in Mexico City, her father would travel for business and bring back tales of culinary creations from around the country, which Godinez's mother would synthesize with her own personal cooking style. Her mother's recipes, served today at El Mesón, reflect what Godinez calls "regional homestyle" cuisine.

Godinez met her husband, Yves Macias, when the two worked as waiters at Manuel's on Congress Avenue in the early '90s before serving in the same capacity at Fonda San Miguel in the late '90s. The legendary Austin restaurant inspired Godinez to serve her family's brand of authentic Mexican cuisine. Godinez, Macias and his brother Atticus opened El Mesón Taqueria on Burleson Road in January 2001.

After almost a decade serving a loyal following, Godinez and the Macias brothers decided to polish the restaurant's work boots and head into the center of town, where their interior Mexican food could be appreciated in a more formal, and easier to find, setting.

In May 2010, they expanded to South Lamar Boulevard and opened El Mesón Cocina Mexicana and Tequilería amidst a burgeoning restaurant row that now includes Uchi, the Highball, Olivia, Sazon and El Mesón's parking lot neighbor, Barley Swine. The move to the old stone building that once housed Hayward Neon has brought increased visibility to the wonderful cooking that drew visitors to the original location, but the larger space and transition to table service has provided a few challenges.

Meals begin with a small complimentary seasonal plate. Lately they've been offering a sweet mango sliced "hedgehog" style — cubes carved in the open face of the fruit for convenient picking. The lagniappe provides a nice touch not typically expected at a modestly priced restaurant, but could be seen as a slight smoke screen for having to pay for chips and a trio of salsas ($2.99).

As for those chips, they live up to their bill(ing). Not simply paper-thin excuses for consuming massive amounts of melted Velveeta, these firm dark yellow totopos resemble the corn from which they come and are as thick as rush-hour traffic on Lamar. They are used best for scooping bold homemade guacamole ($6.50). Flecked with bits of finely chopped tomato, diced onion and fresh cilantro that almost hide in the deep green dish, the guacamole relies predominantly on the rich, oily flavors of the fatty Mexican fruit.

You might want to leave the chips on the table when the ceviche Acapulqueño ($9.50) arrives. Purple cabbage provides color and crunch to a dish that is most fully enjoyed with a fork. Chunks of fresh tilapia are punctuated with bright herbs and chopped tomatoes in a tangy citrus that is mellowed by feathered slices of avocado that look like a parakeet's wing.

Any meal at El Mesón should include the restaurant's best appetizer, the taquitos de camaron al pastor ($6.50). The three fist-sized homemade corn tortillas cradle grilled achiote-marinated shrimp that look like meaty Rainier cherries. Small bits of pineapple provide a tropical tang that initially masks a fresh punch of shrimp aftertaste. Those looking for a little fire to go with the mild dish can use the spicy and creamy avocado salsa verde that lends a harmonious blend of soothe and sear. The more pedestrian spinach taquitos ($5.75) feel like an afterthought compared to the sensational shrimp.

Vegetarians will not feel left out, however, once they discover the chile ancho relleno ($13.99). The dried ancho pepper maintains its form on arrival, but the pierce of a fork makes it ooze with a warm, creamy mixture of goat, cotija and Monterey jack cheeses. Pinenuts and onions provide crunch to the light cream sauce, while dried cherries and a chunk of tomatillo trumpet sweet and tart notes that make the dish explode with flavor.

The chile relleno en nogada ($15.99), a favorite in Puebla, strikes a perfect harmony of sweet and savory. The slightly charred skin of the unfortunately smallish green pepper thinly veils the fibrous vegetable that bursts at its top with huge chunks of pork cooked in red chile sauce. The minced pieces of nuts offer an authentic and homemade texture to the walnut-almond-sherry sauce that stops short of overwhelming the dish. The glisten and crack of deep red jewel-like pomegranate seeds top the entree that echoes the colors of the Mexican flag.

Slow-cooked in banana leaves, cochinita pibil ($9.79) has long been a favorite at the original El Mesón, and the Yucatan staple continues to impress at the new location. Served with fluffy rice and soft-but-not-mushy black beans, the tender blood-orange colored pork and pickled purple onions pack a strong citrus flavor. Escalate the heat exponentially with the accompanying habanero sauce, perfect for dipping or slathering, depending on your fortitude and water levels. I tend to dab with a sauce this strong, so as to avoid overwhelming the flavor of the pork.

Those accustomed only to dark, chocolaty mole will be pleasantly surprised by the mole verde ($8.75). The sauce made with pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and tomatillo carries hints of Christmas comfort, but on our visit, its complexity could not hide shreds of stringy chicken that, while incredibly moist, were rendered nearly inedible by the overabundance of salt.

Beef fajitas ($11.99) come in a sizzling hot skillet the size of your hand. The lack of surface area leaves the meat buried at the bottom to broil in its sweat, rendering charred, overcooked strips. Onions that caramelize in front of your eyes serve as the fajitas' not-quite-saving grace.

We had originally asked for a mix of corn and flour tortillas for the fajitas and were brought only flour, though the waiter did absent-mindedly leave us the near-empty tortilla warmer from another table. He also rarely re-filled our water, which was important on this night, as the malfunctioning air conditioner struggled to keep the temperature in the restaurant in the low 80s. The warm conditions and constant feeling of being forgotten turned what should have been a 75-minute meal into a two-hour endurance test.

That failed — though oddly friendly — service experience stands in sharp contrast to several others I've had at El Mesón during which an attentive and knowledgeable waiter paced each dish properly and provided wonderful recommendations enlivened by thoughtful and eager descriptions of dishes.

With nothing on the menu over $7, El Mesón's brunch offers excellent value, including fluffy organic egg migas ($4.99) and molletes ($6.55) that are toasted on the outside and supple inside.

The kitchen's mission to use fresh ingredients extends to the bar, which offers over 40 tequilas and uses only hand-pressed lime juice and no frozen fruit to make an impressive slate of margaritas and cocktails.

El Mesón continues to grow into its massive space. Though some walls still remain bare, plants and flowers, along with oversized piñatas, decorative light fixtures, wooden beams and beautiful mosaic floors, provide warmth and a festive spirit for those longing for the feel of Mexico.

The restaurant still stumbles occasionally as it settles into its role as a full-service restaurant. More attention to service details and a bit more consistency in menu execution should see that the new location ends up as prosperous as and more popular than the original.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

El Mesón Cocina Mexicana and Tequilería

2038 S. Lamar Blvd. 442-4441, elmeson.wordpress.com

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Hours: Mondays through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 am. to 10 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sundays 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $2.29 - $9.50. Entrees $8.75 - $15.99. Brunch $2 - $6.79.

Notes: Children's menu available. Lunch dishes are smaller portions of dinner dishes at lower prices, except on weekends.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line: Not just a place to have a drink while waiting for your table at Barley Swine, El Mesón delivers solid traditional flavors while still experiencing the occasional stumble in execution and service.