Restaurants come and go, sometimes at dizzying speed. We’ve had several remarkable establishments open over the past few months in what promises to be a cornucopia of delights for the restaurant-going public. Meanwhile though, Hyde Park has been hit by a few high-profile closings since fall of last year — Teller’s, Dutch’s, Keystone Bar & Grill, to name a few — making the neighborhood ready for some good news on the dining front.
Enter Columbus-based Peerless Management Group, which remodeled the former Cock & Bull on Hyde Park Square in late 2019 and opened something way cool: Mesa Loca.
Peerless owns Galla Park, a meat-and-potatoes-style American restaurant at The Banks, as well as a couple of nightclubs and restaurants in the state capital. For the company’s first suburban restaurant, they went with what had been high on their wish list — creative Mexican cuisine served in a lively, convivial setting on that prominent corner.
Mexican food ranks at or near the top of surveys asking Americans to name their favorite “ethnic” foods. If you take pizza out of consideration, that boosts tacos, burritos and other tortilla-based foods to the head of the class. A recent report by the meal delivery company Grubhub had bean burritos as the No. 1 most popular food among the service’s millions of users.
So yeah, we love the stuff. But I’m no fan of commercial Mexican fare, which typically means mass-produced tortillas, bottled margaritas and plates loaded with plain rice, mushy beans and too much melted cheese. Fortunately, Mesa Loca doesn’t go there. You won’t find fajitas, burritos or quesadillas on the menu, and the cocktails are all made from fresh juices. They have tacos, to be sure, but otherwise the menu holds a few surprises.
Over the course of two dinners I had with six different companions within weeks of Mesa Loca’s opening, I don’t think we had any duplication of the dishes tried, with the possible exception of one of the tacos. While the “apertivos” (appetizers) menu section is minimal, beyond that you’ll find plenty to consider in sections describing soups and salads, ceviche, meats, veggies, seafood, tacos and a house specialty called molcajete. During my two visits we sampled almost all the appetizers and something from just about every other food category, although we didn’t spring for the elaborate molcajete, which is large enough for at least two people.
Molcajete is named after the large, black stone bowl in which a meat- or seafood-based concoction is served. The bowl is similar to the mortar part of a mortar and pestle and Mexican cooks also use it for grinding raw ingredients. Mesa Loca’s version ($36) includes shrimp, brisket, chicken, chorizo, some vegetables and cotija cheese with either a red or green sauce. It sounds fantastic and I hope on a return visit to be able to convince my tablemates to give it a whirl.
When I was there with a party of six, we did order several appetizers — chips with various salsas, mostly. There’s also a plate of pickled vegetables ($6) — cauliflower, carrots, green beans and sweet peppers. I’m all about veggies and appreciated the option but wonder whether it will be popular with folks who expect typical chips-and-dips starters from Mexican restaurants.
We all liked the guacamole and salsas but agreed that the chips were too salty. We asked for another basket, thinking maybe they had given us a batch from the bottom of a container and all the salt had leeched into them, but the new chips were only slightly less lip-burning. (My cynical self says restaurants over-salt on purpose to make diners buy more drinks, but that’s probably not the case...)
And on the topic of drinks, I am impressed by the offerings here. Margaritas aren’t my favorite cocktail but friends who drink them say the Mesa Margarita ($10) is excellent. I like the way the bar accents the margarita glasses not with straight salt but with Tajin, a mild chili/lime/salt mix. My favorite cocktail, though, is their delicious Paloma ($11), a refreshing tequila drink with St-Germain liqueur, simple syrup and fresh red grapefruit juice. Or you can try the Smoked Old Fashioned ($11), served with some tableside theatrics, and a Pepino ($10), a vodka drink that has a subtle bit of heat.
Among the food options, I highly recommend the skirt steak ($18), slices of tender meat displayed beautifully on a platter with a generous drizzle of chimichurri sauce. One of the notable features here is the care that has gone into the presentation of the dishes, such as the glass plates used to serve the Baja snapper ($18) and for the incredibly good elote ($8), a charred sweet corn side dish.
Another standout and probably the favorite single thing placed on our table is the Manchego rice side ($8) — creamy, savory and utterly scrumptious with the melted cheese, corn, black beans and just a little bit of chili. That bowl went back to the kitchen without a bite left in it.
They’ve got only a couple of sweets to end your meal, but they are made for the house by renowned Cincinnati pastry chef Pam Sturkey, so you know they’ll be worth trying. The standout is a tres leche cake ($7), described as “soaked vanilla sponge cake.” We also tried the flan custard ($7). I was disappointed to find out that the third listed dessert, a kind of tequila-laced ice cream parfait called afflagato, had been discontinued.
The restaurant is expansive, with a bustling front dining room that also contains a wraparound bar and a smaller back dining room. Colorful wall murals enhance the experience. The patio out front will seat dozens more in finer weather and there’s a smaller enclosed courtyard out back that looks promising. Until those outdoor spaces open, you’ll have to sit inside in what is already the new “it” place in Hyde Park.
Mesa Loca, 2645 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, mesalocahydepark.com