Even in the cool weather, the strip of Eighth Street between Bannock and Idaho was bustling last week. There were the regular collection of troubadours around Dawson Taylor, cyclists and pedestrians going in and out of the surrounding restaurants, coffee shops and stores. The effect was so pleasant that I almost wanted to sit outside at Mesa Taqueria to wait for my friend Kelly to meet me after work. The last gusts of winter wind convinced me otherwise.
The restaurant itself re-created the feeling of being on an outdoor terrace with terra-cotta-colored floor tiles, broad windows that brightened the room and walls splashed with calming dessert sand and sagebrush colors. It was unlike many Mexican restaurants that offer kitschy murals and cheap souvenir paraphernalia as a backdrop.
The menu clearly rests on three items: quesadillas, tacos and burritos, which are all offered with four different types of meat. Other options are scant: one type of nachos, one salad, one soup, one dessert or one seasonal specialty. A hot-spot for the indecisive diner, it is impossible to get lost in the menu for 20 minutes debating what sounds best. There just aren't that many choices.
The waitress recommended the queso fundido ($6.95) with a warm smile and a mellifluous Latin accent. It came in a sizzling skillet of Kobe chorizo, pinto beans and bubbling Monterey Jack cheese decorated with jalapeno slices. The Kobe chorizo—which the menu proudly hails as Mesa's signature—was spicy without being heavy, and the thick yellow corn tortilla chips were up to the task of hauling heavy loads of meat, beans and cheese to mouth. The queso lost a bit of its splendor after it was half gone and all the grease began to pool in the skillet. I could no longer delude myself into thinking the meal might be good for me.
Kelly ordered the pollo asado taco ($3.59) and I ordered the traditional corn quesadilla with carne asada. The prices of tacos, burritos and quesadillas varied according to the meat. The carne asada was the most expensive. The menu boasted that the steak is hand-cut daily, marinated and chargrilled.
Kelly enjoyed her taco thoroughly. "It's good," she said. No particular accolades, but a flavorful, edible taco with good quality meat. She loaded it with tomato-cilantro salsa, of which she declared, "spicy but good." Again, no delicacy, but good Mexican food.
I felt similarly about my quesadilla. However, one word came up with more urgency than good: tiny. It was a tiny corn tortilla stuffed to the brim with steak and folded over on itself. The portions amounted to less than a Denny's kid's meal, but the steak was moist and succulent. I believed every claim in the menu about their fancy carne asada, but I could have eaten the whole quesadilla in five bites—$3.29 for a quesadilla is a good deal, but it isn't great. I wasn't full on that much food and would have happily paid twice the price for twice the amount.
Everything was delivered promptly and sizzling hot. The kitchen is open to the restaurant, and its clean stainless-steel interior inspired confidence in the quality of what was served. Kelly is easily the most finicky eater I know, particularly about food being clean and prepared properly, and I didn't hear a doubt escape her lips. Two flat screen TVs offered the background entertainment of Christina Aguilera being interviewed on Ellen, bustier than ever now that she nurses a baby along with a fan base.
We had the mesadilla ($2.25) for dessert: a chocolate and hazelnut spread in a toasted cinnamon flour tortilla with whipped cream for dipping. It was a small but delicious indulgence and at the end of the meal, we were pleased. Kelly summed it up best, "Good restaurant, small portions, good prices."
—Kelly Lynae Robinson wishes her meals came in celebrity-sized portions.