After a sojourn south of the Bay area, we were stopped on I-275 on the way to St. Pete by a traffic jam just shy of the Skyway tollbooth. Because we sat for more than an hour in inch-by-creeping-inch traffic — lunch a good eight hours behind us — we were really fucking hungry by the time we walked into Red Mesa.
After ordering a truly prodigious amount of food, and heaping exhortations for speed on our waiter, we had a moment to sit back and reflect while forcing handfuls of fried tortillas and smoky poblano-laced salsa into our mouths. Obviously, Red Mesa doesn't put a lot of stock in appearances. The place is nondescript; just a few vaguely south-of-the-border paintings differentiate the dining room from generic chain design. It's a blank slate, without the earthy, almost kitschy, country-agrarian look of many a Mexican restaurant. It works, though, since Red Mesa's cuisine is far from the rustic food you find at most of those other places.
Some of the dishes were mundane — even boring — like the giant pool of melted jack cheese and sautéed mushrooms called "fundido" ($6.75) or the plain cup of creamy black beans topped with raw onion ($3.75). Deep-fried steak empanadas ($4.95) were blandly meaty and too stingy with the olives and raisins that give them character. These were just good enough to fill the void in our bellies. Some of the other items started to revive our depleted souls.
Rich, delicate and tart, duck and goat cheese quesadillas ($9.50) were easily worth the hour we spent in the car, and more besides. The shredded duck was moist and meaty; soft poblano peppers added a mild, smoky heat; and young goat cheese brightened the whole deal. A side of red pepper jelly, packing a stealth heat that hits a few seconds after ingestion, completed this balanced meal. The fillings were sandwiched between Red Mesa's elastic and toasty corn tortillas, so good we immediately ordered an emergency basket for the table.
More goat cheese, this time in the form of two giant, deep-fried croquettes, sat at the side of a pile of bright green baby spinach ($9.95). Dressed with sweet hibiscus vinaigrette and topped with mandarin orange and candied pecans I could eat by the handful, the salad was damn good on its own. But break through the crisp panko crust of the croquettes and add a forkful of gooey goat cheese to the mix and this salad quickly enters sublime territory.
Yucca is overused lately, like a new and trendy version of the potato, but without the potato's versatility and flavor. Still, the yucca fries ($2.50) we ordered as a side were the best I've had, thin and uniformly crisp, the bland starchy sticks given life by a vinegary cilantro sauce. On the other hand, Red Mesa's fried plantains ($2.50) were almost too clean and pretty, with the uniform golden look of the deep fryer instead of the mottled, sweet-and-dark caramelization of a hot skillet.
Those plantains are indicative of Red Mesa's culinary zeitgeist — a refined convergence of Mexican and Tex-Mex that denies the rough-and-ready rusticity most of us are comfortable with. When it works, like the yucca fries and duck quesadillas, it works well. Sometimes, as in the empanadas and the plantains, where rusticity is the soul of the dish, Red Mesa's versions lose something in translation.
Chile rellenos ($13.95) were another example. The roasted pepper was stuffed with beef piccadillo and covered in green salsa roja that was too subtle. It was good, but had none of the rough edges, chunky ingredients and hearty spices that give character to simple stuffed chiles.
We quickly abandoned a special of whole fried hogfish ($22) — overcooked fish jerky, suitable only for creating an impromptu puppet show — in favor of pork verde ($12.95), a classic Mexican stew that works within Red Mesa's culinary template. Slow-cooked shredded pork is soaked in an elegant but powerful chile verde consisting of smoky poblano, spicy jalapeno, pungent garlic and bright cilantro. We forked it into toasty corn tortillas until the plate was bare.
By this point, we were full and sated, but remembering our brief deprivation a few hours prior, we forced ourselves to order dessert. The fried ice cream ($4.95) is often good, but on this occasion the corn-flake coating was limp and rubbery. Caramel-coated plantains foster ($4.95) fulfilled our sweet, banana-y expectations. Best, though, was the light vanilla bean natilla ($4.95), a simple custard flavored with nutmeg-laced Mexican chocolate.
This isn't comfort food — greasy and hearty like your local Mexican joint. It's not haute cuisine, either. Red Mesa's food occupies a delicate middle ground where the homey flavors of traditional Mexican get updated and refined, just a bit. In the process, a lot more is gained than lost.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.