There were people as far as the eye could see (granted, I wasn’t wearing my glasses) eating at the new Meso Maya in downtown Fort Worth during lunch hour on a recent weekday.
The narrow dining room extends telescopically from the entrance of the restaurant, housed in the Kress Building, on Main Street. Deceptively large, it is also dimly lit, adding an air of formality to this mini-chain, which seems to be taking over the universe.
This spot is the sixth Meso Maya for Firebird Restaurant Group, the hospitality company that owns the restaurants, as well as the El Fenix and Tortaco concepts, and Taqueria La Ventana — a street-food-friendly walk-up that abuts the downtown Dallas Meso Maya location. Meso Maya Tanglewood opened in southwest Fort Worth in the spring.
While the menu may be indistinguishable from the other stores, Meso Maya 6.0 stands out in a big way — it’s the chain’s largest location, with a seating capacity of 400, and it sports handsome leftover details from the historic space, such as its 4-inch-thick hulk of a limestone floor, which dates to 1936. It has a casual feel but an upscale approach — all at a downtown address, which is something easier said than done.
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Upstairs, the rehabbed former Fox & Hound space retains its predecessor’s basic layout, as well as an original-to-the-building massive mirror. A dedicated private party space — complete with audio-visual capabilities — make this a leading contender for best-equipped event space that also serves queso.
The vibe: Loud at lunch. Sounds reverberate off the low ceilings and seemingly amplify off the tortilla chips (which are served with an excellent smoky salsa). Manager Jimmy Brooks told me he hopes to tailor the space further to tone down the noise. In the meantime, prepare to conduct any breaking business elsewhere.
This is not to say you won’t enjoy your meal. Meso Maya’s unique tandem of polished service and superior Oaxacan and Puebla-inspired food means the mole fiends will be satisfied, and so will the carne asada geeks.
The food: Everything is good, and most items are great, so where to start?
A bowl of pozole verde ($10) hit the spot on a unusually cold, blustery afternoon. Oodles of hominy and shredded chicken struck earthy notes while its lime juice gave perfectly tart interest. A large handful of excellent tortilla chips, broken up quickly so as to negate their calorie count, added crunch and more texture.
The carne asada ($21), not the plate-dwarfing kind, was tender and flavorful, and stood up to the rich black beans and mini-brick of a sweet corn tamal, while the Herradura salmon ($22) was a lovely fillet of sauteed Scottish salmon, lacquered with a tamarind glaze, and served with charred Brussels sprouts and a mild puree of chayote squash. It was substantial, but not heavy, which is why the pastel de chocolate ($8) seemed like a good idea at the time.
The molten chocolate cake — drowning in a rum sauce, hoisting a luscious scoop of corn ice cream and sporting a dusting of powdered sugar — was tremendous, as in: It was very large, and it was incredibly good.
The ice cream, studded with kernels, was not weird but welcome, adding a creamy sweetness to the overtly decadent dessert. I could have done without the sprinkling of out-of-season strawberries, but they did add attractive color to the plate.
The service: Friendly but never obsequious, the staff at Meso Maya is nearly always a pleasure. Most of the servers I’ve had over the years at various locations have struck me as experienced, yet never do they execute the rote mechanical motions that many are reduced to at restaurants of this ilk.
The verdict: Just a tortilla chip’s throw from another popular Mexican restaurant — both south of Sundance Square — Meso Maya is at once a familiar and a bracing breath of fresh air. And this is coming from someone who dines at the other Fort Worth location regularly, with a gusto only surpassed by (an increasingly) disturbing dedication to the restaurant’s salsa.
Meso Maya “Kress”
604 Main St., Suite 100
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday