There are numbered combination plates. There are complimentary chips and salsa. There’s a lunch special called Speedy Gonzalez. There are fajitas. There are chimichangas. Quesadillas, burritos, tacos, and on one page of the menu there’s a description of a dozen or so Mexican dishes, complete with a pronunciation guide.
Find yourself an expert in the culinary anthropology of Mexico, and he or she will tell you flat out that these dishes aren’t rooted in the pre-Columbian foodways of Mexico; heck, they don’t even reflect the hundreds of years of colonial cross-pollination that created contemporary Mexican cuisine, in all its regional variety.
Nope, those combo plates and comped chips are pretty much the standard indicators that you’re in a Mexican-American place. That nearly always means abundant food and low prices. But it doesn’t always mean the sort of vivid interesting flavors you’ll encounter at Fiesta Mexicana.
Founded more than a dozen years ago by Moses Moran, who hails from the Mexican state of Hidalgo, Fiesta Mexicana has grown to three locations: Shelbyville, Mount Washington and Louisville.
The Louisville location is done up in reds and greens, with wood-paneled booths, stacks of sombreros, lots of beer signs and the usual assortment of TV screens. The soundtrack leans toward cheerfully brassy border music (though muted enough that it doesn’t intrude on conversation). Service strikes me as excellent and more informative than usual (even to the point of describing the different herbal inflections in various sauces).
Fiesta’s menu is — not surprisingly — big. There are 25 dinner combination platters, 15 or so seafood options, a half-dozen nacho variations, a half-dozen vegetarian specials, and so forth. And everything we tried tasted as if it had been cooked by someone with an opinion about how things ought to taste. A server once told us that he regularly exhorts the different cooks to be more uniform in their use of spices; as far as I’m concerned, let ’em play around.
Salsas, medium and hot, and fresh, warm corn chips usually arrive at the table promptly. If you’re a queso fan, a piping hot serving of Chori Dip ($4.50), melted cheese with chunks of spicy sausage and a shallow layer of spicy red oil, will go nicely with a bottle of Negro Modelo (or perhaps a margarita). And if you wish, all of the customary options — guacamole, pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa — can be had.
Dishes based on chicken — like a combo featuring a burrito, enchilada and chile relleno ($7.99) — impressed us with moist, succulent meat. And varying sauces — big garlic notes that accented the enchilada, pleasant herbs on the chile relleno and a nicely balanced fusion of onions, tomatoes and cumin on the burrito, gave this combination platter unusual intrigue.
Tamales — thick layers of steamed cornmeal wrapped around flavorful beef — were rich and satisfying (one tamale, a la carte, $2.50; 3, $6.75). And folks who love Latin-inflected seafood dishes will be delighted to find dishes like camarones al mojo ($10.75), shrimp and mushrooms sauteed in butter and garlic, with rice, beans and tortillas; or a combination platter that features quesadillas and enchiladas stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp ($9.25).
I’m a sucker for sizzle, and Fiesta Mexicana does it right, dishing up cast-iron platters filled with fajitas that arrive at the table with all the noise and fanfare a guy could ask.
Chicken fajitas will set you back $13.75; or $24.99 for two. Steak runs the same price, and an extravagant mix of chicken, steak, shrimp and chorizo tips the register at $15 (or $26). Regardless, you’ll get plenty of well-caramelized onions and juicy bell peppers, as well as lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, beans and rice, and enough tortillas to wrap everything up.
And after all that wrapping, we wrapped up our meal with a very nice flan — soft, sweet and silky.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at email@example.com.