One of the best local dining trends has been our graduation from Tex-Mex to "Mex-Mex," a more authentic take on Mexican food than the standard combination plate. In 2011, it surfaced all over, from Hacienda San Miguel in Fort Worth, to Mesa in Oak Cliff, to Komali in Uptown Dallas.
Meso Maya, which El Fenix honcho Mike Karns opened in the old Chic From Barcelona spot at Preston and Forest, is the North Dallas version -- pretty on the outside, with efforts to create a sense of adventure, but at heart a safe and conservative experience that ultimately reinforces the locals' tastes.
Some unconventional dishes are offered, but on any given night, it seems as if a majority of the tables still bear enchilada plates.
The restaurant has the feeling of grandness that North Dallas likes; its spacious dining room is broken into two sections, with a bar along the right and an enclosed patio in front. Servers snap to, delivering chips and salsa as soon as you sit down. If the salsa tastes more generic than it looks, the house-made chips, cut into curling strips and served warm and salty, make up for it.
The margaritas look good, too. Served in stubby glasses, they go beyond the usual "frozen" and "swirl" by incorporating unexpected ingredients such as cucumbers or serrano peppers. They're pricey, though. An avocado margarita with pureed avocado was $12. And like so much at Meso Maya, its appearance didn't quite match up to its flavor. The avocado added little, and the texture was too slick.
If you judge a restaurant by its basic house salad ($5), then Meso Maya would disappoint. The menu description sounded promising, with apples listed as an ingredient, but the salad consisted of a dull mixture of chopped greens with apple shreds, pink tomatoes diced too small and a harsh dressing that tasted like bottled French.
Soup, starters and entrees were better. De rellenos ($10) were like fancy poppers: small, round red cascabel peppers were stuffed with a goat cheese and fried in a tempura batter, with a spoonful of molé on the side.
Pozole de puerco ($6 small, $12 large) -- pork and hominy soup -- was fresh and hearty. Infused with guajillo chile, the red-tinted broth had bracing heat, lively enough to almost make you overlook the slight grease slick on the surface. Just before serving, the kitchen tossed in grated cabbage and thinly sliced radish so that when it arrived, the veggies were still crisp but on the verge of wilting -- perfect. The soup held plenty of earthy hominy kernels and a couple chunks of soft pork.
The signature dish is budin Azteca ($13-$14), a stack of layered tortillas pressed flat so that it resembled a pudding. Cutting down the stack with a fork was supremely satisfying, and roasted tomatillo sauce gave it good sweet-and-sour flavor. You can get it topped with your choice of pulled chicken, shrimp, tenderloin or roasted vegetables, for the vegetarian crowd.
For North Dallas high-rollers, the menu has serious entrees such as pork chop ($18) and carne asada ($18). On the other end, there are $12 taco and enchilada plates, available with chicken, brisket, skirt steak, shrimp (for the tacos) or spinach (for the enchiladas). Brisket enchiladas came in blue-corn tortillas with rice and black beans. The brisket was tender but fatty. The rice was ultra white and weirdly oily, but the black beans were very good, with a soft but solid texture that showed care in the cooking.
They make their own corn tortillas at Meso Maya, which you can spy at the entrance, where a kitchen staffer -- usually a female -- labors over the masa in a glass-enclosed room. By the time they arrive at the table, the tortillas have been formed into perfectly symmetrical discs, almost too perfect -- but, hey, it is North Dallas.