Remember the teen rom-com She's All That, when lady killer Zack Siler, played by the incomparable Freddie Prinze Jr., bets his pal that he can transform any old gal into a prom queen with a few simple moves? Sure enough, that nerdy Laney Boggs, played by the understatedly attractive Rachael Leigh Cook, slowly transforms from pariah to player, just narrowly losing the crown to that bitch Taylor Vaughan, played convincingly by Jodi Lyn O'Keefe of "Nash Bridges" fame.
In my story, Mexican food is Laney Boggs and Puente Viejo is Zack Siler. With a few simple moves, Puente Viejo has taken a characteristically homely food genre and polished it up Pygmalion style for popular approval. But in my story, the pair ends up walking away with His and Hers crowns.
Tex-Mex and plain-old Mex is festive food, but so many of our beloved haunts are depressing as heck, all dark hand-carved woods, stiffly upholstered booths, oil-on-velvet paintings, chipped tableware and blowup Corona bottles. Puente Viejo is the ugly duckling that grew up to become a beautiful swan. Designed for the downtown crowd, this three-month-old Playhouse Square eatery shuns the classic chassis in favor of one that could just as easily dispense sushi or steak. The renovated warehouse-style space features exposed brick, industrial lighting, marble-topped bar, and a tastefully understated line-drawing mural of the puente viejo, or old bridge.
The 100-seat restaurant is on the ground floor of the Creswell, a newly converted residential building on Huron Road. Owner Rogelio Hernandez, who was born and raised in Central Mexico, is a member of the family behind such popular spots as Si Señor, Los Habañeros, El Jalapeños and Fiesta Jalapeños. As is par for the course at such establishments, diners can expect a tried-and-true formula of speedy service, massive portions, screaming-hot plates (really: don't touch) and populist prices.
Maybe it's just a case of margarita goggles, but the food here tastes spiffed up as well. Diners are presented with the same mile-long menu of Mexican and Tex-Mex staples that is found all over town, but the ingredients taste fresher, executions seem tighter, and presentations appear less haphazard. Contemporary tableware certainly helps, but so too does a judicious hand in the kitchen when it comes to cheeses, sauces and garnishes. Enchiladas aren't submerged like submarines beneath 20,000 leagues of melted cheese. Chimichangas can still see the light of day despite a gilding of chile con queso. And guests can grab a nacho chip without fear of sinking a ring finger deep into the guac.
Meals begin with bowls of warm, crisp chips and a crock of mild tomato salsa. Instead of doing as I did (helping oneself to the self-serve salsas at the taco bar, which is for people who actually order tacos), ask your server to bring over a bowl of the perky salsa verde. Snacks like warm, creamy queso ($6.75), kicked up with a smidgen of jalapeno, and ripe, rich guacamole ($4.99), go great with a cold beer, margarita or cocktail from the bar. Those margaritas ($10) benefit from the inclusion of aged tequila and fresh lime juice.
An entire meal can be built around the Sampler el Azteca ($9.50). More than enough for a table of four to share, this party on a platter layers hot, griddled quesadilla wedges and crispy shredded beef flautas on top of a mountain of nachos, which themselves are topped with melted cheese, shredded beef and shredded chicken. Capping it all off are dollops of sour cream, guacamole and chopped tomato.
Enchilada fans have their choice of chicken, beef, cheese or bean topped with cheese, mole poblano or salsa verde. Of course, there are combinations plates, like the Rancheras ($14.50), which includes three different enchiladas on the same plate along with Mexican rice and refried beans. Other combo plates, like the Fiesta Jalapenos Special ($14.50), mix a pork tamale, beef taco, tostada, enchilada, chile relleno and rice and beans. Diners also are free to mix and match items to create their own combination dinners.
Entire menu sections are devoted to fajitas, chicken, seafood, steak and tacos, which have the added benefit of gaining entree to that taco bar. Good quality soft corn tortillas (or hard shells) are filled with your choice of chorizo, shredded beef, carnitas, al pastor and sautéed shrimp ($2.50-$3.49). They arrive completely naked, allowing the diner to dress them up as he or she sees fit with any number of salsas and garnishes like limes, cilantro, white onion, and pickled and fresh jalapeno peppers. (Pro tip: If you know that tacos are in your future, ask to sit in the dining room as opposed to the barroom.)
At lunch, a diner can be in and out for less than $10 by ordering any of the dozen or so all-in-one plates. And thanks to the setting, you won't even feel out of place in business attire.