The Tanglewood area of Fort Worth hardly qualifies as a food desert, but if you asked folks there two months ago where to go in the neighborhood for good Mexican, you’d be met with quizzical expressions and maybe a few somber faces.
Outside of Chipotle or mundane chains further south on Hulen Street, the southwest Fort Worth swath of land, increasingly interesting on a culinary front thanks to the Clearfork and Waterside developments, has long lacked a dependable — or even better, authentic — Mexican place.
Entra Meso Maya, a Dallas-based mini-chain owned by the same group behind El Fenix, but about as different from the latter as noche y dia.
With a focus on the food of interior Mexico — think mole and chicharrones — plus a few hallmark offerings like avocado margaritas, layered enchiladas called Budin Azteca and sweet plantains, Meso Maya builds upon the everyman’s working knowledge of Mexican food and exploits the experience, providing nuance and flavor nearly every time you dip your chip.
Those house-made chips, served with a fine, fire-roasted salsa, are the foundation to a meal here, which can be an alternately languid affair on the tree-shaded patio facing Hulen or a rushed lunch inside the cramped dining room, where narrow aisles make it hard to navigate.
I enjoyed all of the above in four visits — I qualify as one of those starved, over-eager neighborhood residents — happy to embrace a a place that serves mostly stellar food with a killer outdoor set-up, provided it’s not raining and it’s not 110 degrees, ideal for a margarita on the rocks.
The margaritas — avocado ($12) and cucumber ($9) — beckoned at two of the meals, the former a muddled concoction that proved a heady mixture of pineapple and lime juices, triple sec and Casa Noble Crystal Tequila. It seemed the perfect foil for a side of sweet plantains ($4), slightly caramelized and topped with a white crema sauce that was purely decorative.
The cucumber margarita was a little more my speed, slightly sweeter yet a fresher take, thanks to lime juice, simple syrup and Blue Nectar tequila blanco. I speared the chunk of cucumber inside the glass with my straw and pondered the menu, which spans enchiladas, salads and entrees like chile rellenos to tacos and the Budin Azteca, best described as a Mexican lasagna, with its layered corn tortillas topped with a red chile sauce and a variety of ingredients, depending on whether you choose chicken, vegetable, shrimp or beef.
The carne version ($14) came with cubes of beef tenderloin, black beans and chunks of potato. Smothered with the red guajillo sauce, the fragrant entree was topped with a healthy garnish of arugula, adding a fresh, slightly bitter aspect to the rich dish.
Not any lighter was the short-rib relleno ($20), a battered poblano, stuffed with melted white cheese and paired with a serving of short ribs, succulent and painted with a chile pasilla sauce. Decadent, filling, and maybe a better bet for a “hungry woman” or a couple to share, it struck as the opposite of summertime food.
With visions of bikinis in the on-deck circle, we found the salads to be no less satisfying. The ensalada mercado de pollo ($13) was a textural marvel: Romaine mixed with other greens, tomatoes, black beans, corn, avocado and shredded cheese, slices of grilled chicken, plus tortilla chips, was as successful a “Southwest salad” as I’ve ever had.
It helped that the creamy avocado dressing, ordered on the side, perfectly coated the tines of my fork as if to negate the previous entrees’ caloric overload.
Also outstanding was the ensalada de ceviche ($15), field greens topped with the lime-juice-marinated house ceviche. Pieces of shrimp and striped bass were light-as-air counterparts to cubes of jicama and mango. I’ve never seen jicama served in pieces this large, but the fibrous veggie worked its magic, soaking up the juices of the honey lime cilantro vinaigrette.
Spicy guacamole ($9), with bits of serrano pepper, gave my little ones pause but I fished out the chile for myself.
Because there’s always another chip on the horizon at Meso Maya, just like the promise of my next trip.