A couple of months ago, a loyal CityBeat reader challenged my assessment that Rio Grande in Newport had some authentic Mexican dishes. I will still say that as far as Mexican restaurants in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky go Rio Grande still offers some hole-in-the-wall surprises in a sea of Tex-Mex overload. (The fajitas are phenomenal.)
But I took his advice. When he suggested I review La Mexicana, one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in the area, I went.
According to the reader, it’s the place Dave Falk (Nada chef/owner), Jean-Robert de Cavel and other “A-list” chefs go for real Mexican (when they don’t go to Nada, I assume). I have no idea if that’s the case but trusted that he knew what he was talking about.
On a recent Saturday night, my best friend Aaron and I trekked over to Newport to try it out. I was wearing the wrong clothes, Aaron remarked. Short grey sweater dress, textured hose and long black boots. “You’re way overdressed,” he said. I was. I walked into what looked like a florescent-lit (think Goldstar Chili lighting) take-out place, the kind that serves those red-bubbled plastic glasses full of Pepsi, of course. But I was thankful to find we could order beer. La Mexicana served the usual suspects — Tecate, Corona and Dos Equis — but also Modelo, Negra Modelo, Pacifico and Carta Blanca.
I am a big lighting/atmosphere fanatic and I made it known immediately that I hated eating or even spending any time in florescent green lighting. Aaron quickly remarked that we weren’t in a Tex Mex establishment and that I just had to suck it up — “You wanted authentic Mexican. Here it is.” We looked around. There was nothing on the wall in the way of decoration, just a giant clock. “I mean, once they start putting the Aztec art on the wall, it’s over. It’s become Tex-Mex purgatory,” Aaron said.
I generally judge the authenticity of a Mexican restaurant not by décor or signage but by salsa and mole sauce. Call me crazy, but if the salsa goes beyond regular old tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos, I assume we might have a winner. (Hey, I live in Cincinnati.) And if the mole sauce doesn’t have overwhelming sweet chocolate overtones, I assume, again, the place is a potential winner.
So, when we got the salsa — a nice mix of tomatillos and jalapenos with a lovely cilantro aftertaste — I was pretty happy. The chips tasted like all tortilla chips taste to me, like table cloth, but that’s my own issue. No one’s fault but my quirky tastebuds.
We surveyed the menu, which was refreshingly small. I hate a four-page menu with so many options it requires a 30-minute review. It starts to feel like required grad school reading after a while, when I just want to focus on the sensory experience of eating and rest my brain.
We basically had a choice between tacos, burritos, tortas (sandwich), gorditas (fried, thick corn tortilla), quesadillas and sopes (defined on the menu as a topped thick corn tortilla but I thought it was soup). We could also get enchiladas, chili relleno, flautas and tamales, among other standards. Once I caught a glance of the 13 versions of meat you could put into your taco, burrito, torta, gordita, quesadilla or sope, I knew we were in authentic territory. From asada (seasoned skirt steak) to bistec (seasoned ribeye steak) to milanesa (fried breaded steak), there were plenty of meat concoctions. There were some vegetarian ingredients, as well, including flor de calabazas (seasoned pumpkin flowers) and huitlacoche (seasoned corn flower).
I opted for the Flag Burrito ($8.49) with chicken, and mole sauce as a substitute for the red salsa (thanks to a tomato allergy). There’s little I need more than simple chicken and mole sauce from a Mexican restaurant. Yes, I know its plain, but that’s my issue. My friend opted for the Enchiladas ($9.99), folded with fried onion, cream and fresh cheese. He enjoyed the flavor and consistency of the chicken — it has the flakiness of Mexican chicken, he explained. My mole sauce passed the test of authenticity. No overwhelming chocolate overtones. I tasted more chipotle and garlic than sweet coca, which I was content with. It also had heat, which was nice.
We were pleased that the restaurant was full by the time we left at 9 p.m. on a Saturday. Honestly, I was glad that La Mexicana was my last review for CityBeat (a new job has forced me to resign at the end of the month). I couldn’t think of a better exit.
Go: 642 Monmouth St., Newport
Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Entree Prices: $2.49-$11.99
Payment: Visa or Mastercard
Red Meat Alternatives: Plenty
Accessibility: Fully accessible