It's said there's nothing new under the sun. But there is in West Carrollton, Ohio, at El Meson. If you're looking for an exotic dining experience without packing or showing a picture ID, drive north on I-75 for a south-of-the-border minivacation. Forget the miles, don't worry about the time: You'll feel welcome in this tropical world.
The El Meson Restaurant started as a hobby for Herman Castro, an NCR engineer originally from Colombia. He bought a tiny pizza parlor as an investment. During the week, he sold pizza. But on weekends, his whole family cooked Spanish food for friends and a growing fan club. When the barbershop next door became available, Castro bought it and eventually the shop beyond that. Renova-tions linked the separate buildings, culminating in the cavernous El Meson with a twisty, familiar, but surprising feeling.
El Meson is delightfully the opposite of high ad budget, low-taste chains. Robust taste, enthusiastic staff and reasonable prices.
It was bustling and friendly early on a recent Saturday evening. As we zigzagged through rooms to our table, I was dazzled by the colorful accoutrements adorning walls and ceiling. We sipped glasses of Sangria ($2.95), feeling as if there were quite a few regulars. Or maybe it's the Castro family (all present, smiling and circulating, bussing tables, answering questions) and the staff just making people feel at home. I was even offered a sample of the next table's Whole Fresh Tilapia ($19.95), a special from the weekend menu featuring cuisine from Guanajuato, Mexico.
Don't expect chips and salsa. We received a basket of fresh, chewy bread coupled with a tangy spoonable sauce of cilantro, green onion, parsley and 20 spices. The regular list of tapas was expanded with several from the Guanajuato region. We chose Ceviche de Pescado ($6.25), a classic, interpreted well with large shrimp "cooked" in lime juice, covered with a mildly spiced sauce and layered in a glass ice cream dish. The presentation included a crisp, lengthwise plantain strip with plantain chips circling the base of the bowl. Light, crisp tortillas were spread with a subtle horseradish cream and topped with smoked salmon in the Salmon Quesadilla ($6.95).
El Meson serves Spanish cuisine and, although a region in Mexico was featured, the food was not fiery. To sample a new/old twist in table cooking, we ordered the Solomillo ($20.95), a filet mignon prepared in the kitchen, then served on a clay dish heated to 600 degrees, so you can slice and finish cooking to your desire. Moist and tender, this flavorful dish — the concept came from a restaurant in Madrid — was accompanied by a rice timbale and a simple oil-and-vinegar-dressed salad. The Chilean Salmon Stack ($18.95) was an impressive tower of grilled salmon, aioli, black bean salad, rice, romaine, and plantain chips surrounded by savory pitted, stemmed olives, salad and grapes. Even after the stack imploded, the texture and flavor combinations pleased the palate.
About 7:30 p.m., the tableside serenading began. The three women, colorfully dressed, began entertaining the El Meson patrons (and themselves) over eight years ago. About the same time, Castro began to cruise his domain. In a white chef's jacket, clogs and an El Meson baseball cap, he animatedly chatted in Spanish with the singers, then with diners from Puerto Rico. He noted that the staff came from Ecuador, Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico and even Kentucky.
Guava Empanadillas ($4.75) were served hot with a honey-flavored hard candy squiggle darting out of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The tender pastry crust paired nicely with the sweet, exotic fruit for a pleasing dessert. Thin, light crêpes wrapped the rich, buttery caramel filling of the Crepas Argentinas ($4.95), then dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by vanilla ice cream and another serpentine honey confection.
El Meson offered an unusual opportunity to experience a family's passion to present the foods of the world in a meaningful (and flavorful) way. Their personal focus on good service, fun and a commitment to the community (they teach about 100 classes annually covering Latin cuisine and culture for local high schools) is refreshing and inspiring. So when the urge for a Latin fling, a bit of Carnival, or a friendly place to relax and savor new flavors, drive a little north of Cincinnati and bask in the bright light of the El Meson.
Go: 903 E. Dixie Dr. West Carrollton, Ohio
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Payment: All major credit cards.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Several selections in both tapas and entrées.