Aaron Sanchez of the Food Network recently chose Leawood as the site of his first restaurant outside the New York City environs. In keeping with his roots (he grew up at the knee of NY acclaimed restaurateur Zarela Martinez),Mestizo features upscale Mexican fare with a flair. The contemporary interior comes alive with bright colors, red light fixtures and a funky wrought iron bar chandelier. Busy servers streak by in dark purple shirts that complement the orange chairs and booths. In the evenings, when the music is turned up and the bar is five deep with “youngsters” are on the prowl, it can be quite loud. By contrast, the lunch hour is tame and civilized. There’s also a cool looking deck on the roof, complete with fire pits and heaters. One can only imagine what it will be like on hot summer nights.
The first time I went to Mestizo our server encouraged us to start with an assortment of drinks from the extensive cocktail list. He was helpful in steering us away from the many sweet concoctions. I ordered a Prickly Pear Margarita, with Charro Silver, Agave Nectar, Cointreau, Prickly Pear Juice and sugar. As much as I enjoyed it, it resembled fruit punch more than an alcoholic drink. After sampling some of my table mates’, I think I’ll stick with the basic margarita in the future. If you’re a tequila drinker, the list is extensive and impressive.
I usually judge a restaurant by its salsa, but in this instance I’m glad I got past it. The fire roasted salsa that comes complimentary with crisp tortilla chips tasted to us more like spaghetti sauce (although on a subsequent visit I was the only one of my group who thought so). Not a good start, but that was the extent of my dismay as the evening progressed.
Fortunately, there we was a large enough group that we able to sample a wide assortment of dishes.The guacamole was solid– well seasoned and fresh. Moving onto the Small Plates section of the menu, we opted for the scallops. Pepita crusted, they were properly cooked and sat atop a creamy picadillo, essentially a lima bean-free succotash. The pairing worked beautifully.
Crisp pork belly with agave-chipotle glaze on a bed of slaw is much more substantial than the term “small plate” would indicate. It was crispy (read:fried), so not the best option for those watching their cholesterol. Pork belly is by definition a somewhat fatty cut of meat, but each chunk was quite meaty and tender.
The chilaquiles were fabulous….and rich. Layered with chicken and cheese along with tortillas and salsa, these are more substantial than Port Fonda’s and don’t sport an egg on top. Sharing them is the way to go so as to leave room in your stomach to explore the rest of the menu.
There are four types of tacos–pork belly, skirt steak, mahi mahi and braised tongue. I think skirt steak is an underrated cut of meat, but it’s perfect for Mexican fare. Fresh corn tortillas are made in- house in full view of diners, and it’s worth asking your server which dishes feature those tortillas just so you can sink your teeth into them. My only gripe is that the salsas that accompanied them are all lacking. As food aficionado Jenny Vergara pointed out, they only need a touch of salt to perk them up and, though I usually never think a restaurant needs to turn up the salt, in this case I think she’s right.
On another visit we started with Queso fundido so we could have those fresh tortillas again. We chose the queso with rajas–green chile strips, but chorizo and potato or huitlacoche are also options. Though it’s intended to spoon the bubbly cheese mixture on the tortillas, scooping it up with the crisp tortilla chips isn’t a bad way to go either.
Our server also recommended trying one of the entrees, and he steered us to the Grilled Recado chicken, an extremely tender 1/2 chicken that has been marinated first in roasted garlic, lime, and chipotle. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I loved it.
Service is attentive, but on my second visit, it was almost too solicitous. Our server interrupted our conversations way too many times to ask how everything was. It’s better than having to flag someone down I suppose, but they need to find a happy medium.
Personally, because of where I live, I’m sorry Aaron Sanchez picked Leawood over the Plaza to put his new restaurant, but I don’t think he’ll have any regrets. His first foray into our area is certainly solid enough to keep diners coming back for more.