When Mesa21 announced their intent to occupy the old Gargi's space on the lapping shores of Lake Ivanhoe, their promise of "the most authentic Mexican food in America" got many justifiably excited. According to one of the partners in the venture, the impetus for the restaurant was the lack of "real authentic Mexican cuisine on American soil." Sure, hearing such bombast twitched my skeptic's antenna but, mierda, even I couldn't help but do a little hat dance on hearing the news. It didn't stop there, either. Mesa21 was also going to have a tequila menu "second to none" – all that and one of the finest views nature and the permitting office could possibly bestow on a restaurant.
But even as our food scene trends ever upward, it's best not to let hopes surge. When Mesa21 opened, the menu's promised authenticity all but dissipated, along with our inflated expectations. And this unparalleled tequila offering they spoke of? Es falso. Perusing the menu, it was clear they took the safe, approachable route instead.
Nothing wrong with that, but you'd think something as simple as guacamole ($10) – chunky, yes, but way too severe in its acidity – could be done right. Accompanying chicharrón chips would've made intriguing dipping implements had the pork rinds not been so hard, then gummy after chewing. Next, a roasted head of cauliflower ($12) sprinkled with cotija cheese and impaled with a steak knife split opinions at the table – "too watery," said my dining comrade, while I didn't care for the slather of insipid chipotle-mayo sauce. "This isn't a craveable dish," said another comrade when I ordered it again on a subsequent visit, and that said it all.
There isn't much we ate that roused anything more than a mannerly grunt. "How's the chicken mole?" we asked. "It's definitely on the sweet side," said our green server. "It's got a raspberry glaze to make it more accessible." Uh-huh. So we ordered the chile relleno ($15), soggy and drowned in a watery tomato sauce, its rivulets streaking across the oversized plate. Watery refried beans and passable rice didn't help the dish any. On one visit, enchiladas ($14), a dish our server raved about, had a slop of Oaxaca cheese, queso fresco and crema atop four smallish corn tortillas filled with bland chicken tinga. On another visit, we got two larger enchiladas but the tinga, again, lacked that characteristic earthy smokiness from chipotle peppers. There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about it apart from the oversized plate. The corn soup ($7) came in an oversized bowl that sat atop, yep, an oversized plate.
We started to think this large, impractical plateware was merely compensating behavior intended to mask the kitchen's insecurities. "This food," said my restaurateur friend, "it's not made with love. It tastes like production line food." The kitchen, much like those plates, is large and certainly conducive to assembly-line processes, but we took heart in knowing that at least the tortillas for the tacos ($14 for three tacos) were made by hand. But the mealy corn wraps all but disintegrated in our yaps along with their fillings of flavorless sirloin, greasy barbacoa, and surprisingly decent pastor with pineapple.
"Would you like the check?" asked our server. A dessert menu wasn't offered, but as much as we did want the check, sweets were warranted. It's a good thing, too – the dulce de leche pie ($7) and churros ($7) offered a note of positivity, as did that lakeside vista. We sat outside, but the design of the interior, which is quite lovely, clearly took some effort. "They have a nice decor, a great view, and they serve liquor," said my companion. "They'll be fine."
They've got valet parking too, but it'll cost you $2. Look, it's great the city has another waterfront dining option, but a run-of-the-mill Mexican joint in as high-profile a space as this one amounts to nothing more than a step back in our restaurant evolution.