Outside of Mexico, there are probably fewer people in the world who are as in love with Mexican cuisine (or an interpretation of it) as Americans. One never quite realizes just how good we have it in the States when it comes to finding tasty Mexican or Tex-Mex food until one travels to Europe where the difference between a wrap and a burrito isn’t quite as understood as it is here. Our approach to Mexican cuisine has also changed considerably as our culture has begun to embrace bolder flavors, and today’s foodies demand authenticity. While we still love our cheesy, sour cream-laden, Tex-Mex #3 combo specials, a lot of restaurants - even those owned and operated by gringos - are incorporating more and more authentic Mexican flavors and techniques into their menus, and even more restaurants are elevating Mexican cuisine to a level of sophistication previously unseen. Dennis Max’s new Boca Raton restaurant, The Mexican Cocina & Tequila Bar, has managed to bring diners a unique combination of bold, authentic flavors paired with creative innovation and the familiar flavors that we, as Americans, know and love from Mexican cuisine. The result is a restaurant that offers a fun, uninhibited ambiance with great food that teases and plays with your palate in very exciting ways.
The décor is what one would typically expect from a Mexican cantina, albeit more elegant: rustic wooden tables and chairs, bold colors, and a warmth that is reflective of the restaurant’s hospitality and flavorful cuisine. One of the walls is covered with an intricate, graffiti-esque mural in shades of blue that is reminiscent of the cholo culture of Los Angeles. Perhaps the most memorable design feature of the restaurant is the vintage Volkswagen bus parked near the kitchen from where fresh-made tortillas, salsas, and guacamole are dished out. The Mexican, like so many of Dennis Max’s restaurants, is devoted to bringing diners the highest quality, organic, and locally sourced meats and produce, which can be savored in almost every dish.
The attention to detail is what most struck me about The Mexican and is present even in their tortilla chips, which any true aficionado of Mexican cuisine will tell you is a real measure of a Mexican restaurant’s quality. The chips at The Mexican are all made in house with masa sourced from a tortilleria in Doral, as are all of the restaurant’s tortillas, and have an assertive toasted corn flavor to them that can never be found in industrially made chips. The salsas were bright and spicy, and a tangy guacamole served with plantain chip “scoops” - also made in house - presented an unexpected way of serving guacamole. Appetizers range from Tex-Mex classics and traditional Mexican antojitos to creative Mexican-inspired spins on American staples like chicken wings topped pickled peppers and a chipotle buttermilk dipping sauce or a house salad made with iceberg lettuce, jicama, cucumbers, pumpkin seeds, radishes, tomatoes, cotija cheese, and a the same chipotle buttermilk dressing. Fried empanadas are exceptional here, especially those filled with slow roasted pork flavored with onions, tomatillo, and good measure of cilantro that reminded me of Peruvian seco. Chiles rellenos are also very good here and offer a deluxe variation on the Mexican classic. The fried, stuffed green chiles are coated with a crunchy breading, instead of the traditional fluffy egg batter, and are filled with a hearty combination of crumbled chorizo, cheese, and corn. This is served on a bed of golden-colored corn mole with an intensely flavored salsa roja making for an addictive appetizer.
Tacos at The Mexican are definitely one of the most memorable parts of a meal here and exhibit a command of traditional Mexican recipes with a few creative applications, as well. Carnitas tacos served with tomatillo chipotle salsa, onions, and cilantro are very flavorful, and a generous slather of crema mexicana really adds a cooling touch. The albóndiga tacos can be seen as a Mexican meatball sub with small corn tortillas enveloping tiny, spicy pork and beef meatballs. Crispy pork belly tacos are reminiscent of the famous Korean tacos of L.A., although a guava glaze gives them a definite Latin flavor. I typically ignore that section of a menu at Mexican restaurant that doesn’t include a tortilla (with the exception of mole poblano), but some of the most vibrant dishes at The Mexican are from the “platos” section, and they really exhibit an understanding of Mexican traditions combined with innovation that is this restaurant’s trademark. A traditional dish of snapper veracruzana topped with tomatoes, onions, olive, capers, and herbs was extremely flavorful, but their salmon mole verde is perhaps one of the most intriguing seafood dishes with an addictive sauce made from tomatillo, ground pumpkin seeds, green chiles, and herbs. Baby back ribs are glazed with a guava chipotle sauce and served with with a sweet jicama slaw spiked with poblano and peanuts. A dish of carne asada al carbon made from flat-iron steak and served with a potato and chorizo hash is actually locally sourced Seminole Pride beef from the nearby reservation.
Desserts, another menu section often overlooked at most Mexican restaurants, are a required ending to any experience at The Mexican, especially a bread pudding dotted with raisins and enriched with Oaxaca cheeses. The consistency is somewhere between the wobbly American standard and the dense Latin variety, and it comes paired with a puddle of cajeta - a goat’s milk dulce de leche - and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Churros, a simple and nostalgic treat for any Latino, are done very well here, too, and come with a bowl of thick chocolate sauce for dipping. Tequila cocktails are good at The Mexican. They do a decent traditional margarita that will give you a good buzz, and the mango margarita is a nice variation on a classic. Overall, The Mexican has given Boca Raton a much needed Mexican restaurant that is more than a humble taqueria and more than a Tex-Mex restaurant but offers a menu that will be pleasing to those who love both styles of cuisine.
The Mexican Cocina & Tequila Bar
133 SE Mizner Boulevard
Royal Palm Plaza, Boca Raton, FL 33432