It is not easy to find good Mexican food here in Ohio. I have never traveled to Mexico, but I’ve spent enough time in California to know the good stuff. Most of what we have here is unspeakably bad. It survives because it comes cheap, in hefty portions. (Bad restaurant food comes in massive quantities, while great food is doled out by the tablespoon. And most of us like it that way. Mysterious, isn’t it?)
Nuevo is a relatively new spot in Akron billed as a place for “modern Mexican” food and tequila. This is big news for Akron, a city which runs a distant second to Cleveland as a dining destination. Also big news for Linnet. A fictional character of mine once expressed a desire to be waterboarded in tequila, at which point James forbade her alcohol for the rest of the evening.
The atmosphere in Nuevo is great. Plenty of natural light, cool art, a great suspended ceiling of wood panels over the bar, and a perfect soundtrack of blues (my guess: the John Lee Hooker channel on Pandora!). We arrived at an oddly early hour, 4:30 in the afternoon, yet we didn’t have a reservation so we had to eat in the bar. No hay problema!
We began with a draft Pacifico (excellent) and the house margarita, which we were promised was very close to the classic drink, but with the addition of agave syrup. It arrived on the rocks (surprising). The sweetener was not beneficial. It tasted like a Rose’s lime juice version instead of the standard combination of tequila, Cointreau and lime.
Next came the apps: the house guacamole and the queso fundido, served with black tortilla chips. The house guac is basic, with a little too much salt, but tasty. (They also serve a habanero jelly guac and one made of white beans, rosemary and roasted garlic.) The queso fundido, a “three-cheese blend with grilled scallions” had few visible scallions, but for all that it was truly delicious. Had I been at home, I would have licked the dish clean.
Next, salads! For me, the Casa salad (organic greens, tiny yellow tomato, red onion, avocado, buttermilk avocado dressing and “bolillo crisp” which turned out to be similar to a baguette). For the Long-Suffering One, the Remolacha, with roasted beets, fennel, watercress, toasted hazelnuts and queso fresco. Both are extremely well executed: crisp fresh ingredients, bright flavors, dressings that surprise and delight. (The tangy buttermilk avocado has plenty of black pepper.)
You can see that in the picture of the Casa salad, the cheese app is still sitting there, barely touched. This was the only glitch in the meal, but it was a major one. One of my pet peeves is the arrival of salads before the apps are done or (worse) the arrival of entrées before salads are done or (worst of all) the arrival of every fecking dish within a period of less than five minutes. That’s what happened to us. It all came at once. Restaurants whose entrées fall in the $12-30 range should know better than this.
Still, I was in too good a mood to let it bother me (I had tasted the fundido by then and I am a total sucker for a good cheese dish.) Nuevo is what I would call “vegetarian compatible” rather than “vegetarian friendly.” A vegetarian compatible restaurant is one where they have a couple of apps, some salads and 2-3 dinner options. That’s fine if you’re only passing through, but if you make return visits, you find yourself eating the same things over and over. Unless they have something so good it haunts your dreams, you don’t have much reason to keep returning. A vegetarian friendly restaurant, on the other hand, will offer enough possibilities to keep your interest piqued.
The Nuevo menu has three vegetarian options: the tamale with refried black beans and sweet potatoes, the taco with tofu, jicama slaw and the “three-cheese blend,” and the quesadilla with black beans, wild mushrooms, sundried tomato, baby kale, and “three cheese blend.” We went for the tamale and the quesadilla.
Each dinner item comes with Spanish rice, your choice of black beans or pintos borrachos (“drunken” beans cooked in beer), and a garnish of pickled veggies. I had the quesadilla, which was very good, but the flavors did not pop as much as I was expecting. The shrooms tasted like regular mushrooms, and I couldn’t taste the tomato at all. It was a bit bland, so I ended up dosing it with the excellent house chipotle sauce. I found myself enchanted by the borrachos, however. They’re really, really good, piquant and slightly tangy. The rice? Meh, way too oily.
The real winner was the tamale: a mouthwatering combination of vibrant flavors, served over the husk it was steamed in. This was so good, it got me interested in making my own tamales again. A perfect little blast of heat in the midst of frigid winter.
So will we be back? Yes, probably. But I’ll be sure to make a reservation, ask them to make sure there’s no serving bottleneck, and order a tequila.