But, boy, was it a different story an hour later, as we retraced our steps to the car. By then, those former doubters were all smiles as they clutched their Styrofoam-boxed leftovers to their chests and skated across the icy patches on the sidewalk, chatting about the ample portions of modestly priced and tasty food they had just enjoyed, served by friendly staff inside unexpectedly bright and colorful surroundings.
Of course, they were only finding out what scores of other diners have already discovered: Despite outward appearances, Nuevo Acapulco is an inexpensive and altogether pleasant alternative for casual family dining. Two airy, well-lit dining rooms and a more intimate bar and lounge provide plenty of seating among a colorful collection of ornate sombreros and serapes, lush houseplants, and three larger-than-life murals of a radiant Mexican countryside. Owner Roberto Ramirez, who came to Ohio from Mexico by way of the Pacific Northwest, opened the doors to his restaurant in 1994, and it's no surprise that he has welcomed a steady stream of customers for lunch and dinner every day since. At midday, guests include everyone from briefcase-toting businesswomen to laborers in muddy work boots. And in the evening, it's not unusual to see three generations breaking bread -- or rather, rolling tortillas -- together at the restaurant's long tables or in its spacious booths.
This multigenerational appeal is probably due, at least partially, to Nuevo Acapulco's large and inclusive menu. Choices range from such mundane fare as cheddar cheese-topped nachos and taco salads to the more interesting traditional items like Chicken en Mole and Camarones Mojo de Ajo, with stops along the way for vegetarians (Potato Chimichangas and broccoli, cauliflower, and zucchini-stuffed enchiladas) and the culturally impaired (hamburgers or grilled chicken sandwiches, served with fries).
It may also explain why nearly every dish here goes easy on the heat, with the moderately peppery housemade salsa being the spiciest thing we encountered. Still, in contrast to the many other restaurants that turn up the fire simply to disguise a lack of flavor, Nuevo Acapulco's kitchen turns out dishes with honest taste. Seasonings like cilantro, garlic, scallions, fruit juices, assorted cheeses, butter, and yes, even lard (the addition of which results in some of the most wonderfully rich, smooth, and smoky refried beans that you are ever likely to encounter) all assert themselves in the kitchen's output, resulting in simple but entirely satisfactory food.
Case in point was the Camarones Mojo de Ajo: a heaping platter of flavorful, medium-sized fresh shrimp and chunks of meaty button mushrooms, gently sautéed in a blend of butter, white wine, and a moderate amount of garlic, and seasoned with just a hint of salt, pepper, and oregano. At $10.75, the traditionally influenced dish was one of the most expensive items on the menu, but for quality and sheer portion size, it was a bargain.
Likewise, a platter of Chicken en Mole was well-prepared, with plenty of tender, perfectly trimmed strips of boneless, skinless breast meat enrobed in a thick, slightly sweet, brick-red mole sauce made with nuts, seeds, chocolate, raisins, and mild chili peppers. Call me lazy, but I loved not having to go hand-to-hand with slippery slabs of mole-drenched chicken-on-the-bone, which is how the dish is commonly served. Instead, with Nuevo Acapulco's version, I could just scoop up a bite of white meat and a big dollop of mole with my warm flour tortilla and give my complete attention to savoring that gently spiced but complex-flavored sauce.
My server recommended the popular Tacos al Carbon during my first visit to the restaurant, and it quickly became apparent why the dish is a favorite among Ramirez's customers. Cubes of well-trimmed, reasonably tender flank steak -- marinated in pineapple juice, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, and three types of mild chilies, then charbroiled to the desired level of doneness -- were stuffed into three thick, lightly grilled flour tortillas along with shredded lettuce, sliced onion, and bits of tomato. Topped with a spoonful of salsa, more lettuce and tomato, grated Parmesan cheese (yes, it's true!), and a dab of guacamole, the dish was rich, smoky, and completely delicious.
Most dinner platters come with those sinfully luscious, lard-fried beans -- a guilty pleasure that I am happy to indulge in, at least occasionally -- and a portion of buttery, bright-yellow rice flavored with chicken broth and a bit of tomato juice. Cholesterol-free whole beans -- thoroughly cooked, if underseasoned pintos -- are available, in place of the lard-fried beans, for the benefit of dieting sticks-in-the-mud.
Cilantro is the predominant flavor note in the housemade salsa, which came to the table, along with a basket of warm tortilla chips, within seconds of our arrival. But we didn't let its fresh, innocent initial flavor fool us: A peppery aftershock came rumbling over our tongues in due course. A side order of housemade guacamole -- thick and creamy, with bits of cilantro and tomato, and the same peppery kick -- made a great dipping companion for the salsa and chips. (For you culinary historians, I might mention that humble guacamole is one of the most venerable dishes in the Mexican larder, dating back to pre-Columbian times. And yet, despite its age, it can still mambo up a storm with a salty margarita -- or a Corona or Dos Equis -- from Nuevo Acapulco's well-stocked bar.)
The menu also offers more mainstream items like tostadas, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, chalupas, chile rellenos, tacos, and chimichangas. Most of these are available with a variety of fillings, toppings, or sauces, and can be had either à la carte, on dinner platters with refried beans and rice, or as part of a combination platter.
An order of two Enchiladas Suiza -- one corn tortilla surrounding a moist, shredded chicken filling and another one around a filling of finely ground seasoned beef, topped with a brightly flavored green tomatillo sauce, cheese, and a scoop of sour cream -- was fresh and satisfying.
A big chalupa -- a crisp, fried flour tortilla "boat" loaded with that same finely ground beef, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and a slice of pale tomato -- was also hearty and reasonably flavorful. And a fat corn-tortilla tamale, stuffed with lean, shredded pork, was rich and tasty.
We also admit liking the restaurant's unusual take on chili rellenos. Although the dish is traditionally made with poblano peppers, which can vary in piquancy from mild to hot, Nuevo Acapulco's kitchen uses strips of reliably sweet, canned jalapenos wrapped around a filling of creamy Monterey Jack, then dipped in a thick egg batter and sautéed. The resulting dish was mild and flavorful, even though it had been altered to pamper Midwestern palates.
Dessert choices included a generous portion of that Mexican-restaurant staple, fried ice cream, as well as so-called "sopapillas" (sorry little chips of fried flour tortillas, drizzled with honey and cinnamon; not the traditional -- and far superior -- moist and puffy fry-bread, which frequently can be found in restaurants in the Southwest) and an excellent housemade flan -- a trembling cone of cold, dense vanilla custard with a butterscotchy burnt-sugar topping and a fluff of real whipped cream.
As would be expected at a spot with bare tabletops and paper napkins, service is nothing fancy at Nuevo Acapulco, with nary a wine list, salad fork, or table crumber in sight. Still, we wanted for nothing, as the crew of bustling servers made sure we had plenty of water, all the chips we could eat, adequate flatware, and a pile of spare napkins as we made our way through our meals. Even better, our check came promptly, and the pleasant hostess cashed us out with a smile.
No wonder my little party left happy. Even with the glow of the Cuervo Gold margaritas wearing off, our evening had been nothing but straightforward, relaxing fun. And when you find a tasty treat like Nuevo Acapulco inside such a plain brown wrapper of a building, you just can't help but smile.