Mesa: Iconic Veracruz Cuisine In Dallas

On a trip to Dallas, it is a smart decision to look for some good Mexican food. Mexican is one of the city's strong suites. In particular, you can narrow your choice down to a specific Mexican region if you wish. Mexico's eastern state of Veracruz is particularly well represented by a small (30-seat) family-owned restaurant, Mesa, in the city's evolving Oak Cliff neighborhood. Owned by Raul and Olga Reyes who hail from the Veracruz coastal town of Alvarado, Mesa brings some authentic dishes, a seafood emphasis and a friendly, informal dining environment.

Immediately upon entering you are struck by a creative design of slatted wood from reclaimed pallets, indirectly backlit to provide soft light, which line the side wall from the entrance to the back. Beneath them are brown banquettes and, on the opposite wall, the agave-friendly bar. At the other end of the bar, before the kitchen entrance, are the most discreet tables: a four-top and a two-top that can be pushed together to make a six for larger parties. On the narrow back wall are two high tables for couples to purview the scene below. The decor, just as good decor should, fools the eye into forgetting that this room is just an oblong box.

On our first visit, Olga was cooking. Despite it being Sunday evening and a Cowboys game in progress the place was three-quarters full. The menu is concise, with an emphasis on seafood. Best of the starters is ceviche ($14) of shrimp and snook in lime with ample tomato, buttressed with a delicately calibrated portion of very thinly sliced red onion. Over the top, a fluttering of microgreens and some hearty chunks of perfectly ripe avocado. It is not just visually engaging. The palate sensation is one of precise overall balance keeping acid and fruit in harmony. The shrimp and the fish are still al dente, each true to its individual textural structure.

The guacamole ($10) is also a stellar rendition of this staple. The only reason that it is not on a par with the ceviche is that good guacamole inherently cannot rise to the heights of good ceviche.

Both the above come with some chips that are so addictive, I think must be made of crack. I conclude that because I usually eschew eating chips in restaurants, regarding them as a device to fill up with carbs and make you thirsty. These chips are different. They are warm, fresh, and cooked just enough to give them a toasted complexion. They are made in-house.

An entrée of mole mama cata enchiladas ($16) ladled rich chocolatey mole over corn tortillas wrapped around chicken. The three ingredients merged in the mouth in a synergy of sweet, meaty and bold wheat flavors. A clever touch about this dish was not plating the enchiladas directly on the plate but on a thin bed of rice, strands of carrot ('ropa carrot'?) and similarly prepared zucchini. These are touches redolent of haute cuisine's fastidious attention to detail.

The seafood entrée huachinango a la Veracruzana ($27) was, our waiter informed us, Mesa's flagship dish. No surprise, this take on red snapper is a Veracruze classic. According to Wikipedia, "Traditionally, a whole red snapper is used, gutted, and de-scaled (sic) and marinated in lime juice, salt, pepper, nutmeg and garlic. A sauce is made of onions, garlic, tomato, jalapenos, olives and herbs, and the fish is baked with the sauce until tender. Capers and raisins may also be used." As with all classics, in practise everyone does it differently. Mesa mounts the fish trophy-like on a bed of rice and the mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and olives that they use in the sauce. Then, an ostentatious twirl of those ropa carrots and beets prepared likewise is entwined around the top. Reassuringly, the show is matched by the go. The fish flavor is rich and slightly piquant and the sauce is complex and satisfying.

Desserts, if you can manage one, are straightforward flan, bread pudding, and rice pudding. And to finish, a complementary torito made from cream, peanut butter, and cachaça.

On the drinks side the custom cocktails are worth a look, as are the choices among six draft and five bottled beers. The beers include a nod to local brews as well as some Mexican choices. The wine list is best forgotten. It has both of the classic Dallas wine list problems: poor selection and high prices (e.g. La Marca Prosecco is $9/glass but just $12/bottle in the Dallas retail market). Since Mesa has a mixed drinks license, Texas' restrictive state law makes it illegal for patrons to bring their own wine.

Mesa's tranquil decor, friendly service, exceptional care in the preparation of the food and adherence to the cooking of a heritage make it, to use a familiar phrase, my kind of place. Judging by the crowds that still come after four years in business, others agree.

Food: 8.5/10, Service: 9/10, Ambience: 8/10