Who doesn't love Mexican food? From the salty chips and creamy guacamole to the fiery salsas and complex mole sauces, a Mexican meal is a fiesta for the mouth, plain and simple. That's why we're always on the hunt for great new spots, hoping that the latest restaurant on the scene will be our new favorite place to satisfy that eternal craving.
The only way Cleveland's newest two Mexican restaurants could be more dissimilar is if one of them didn't serve Mexican food. From location and setting to menu and service, Las Dos Fronteras and Camino are contradictory in every conceivable way. That's all right by us because we aren't always in the mood for the same style restaurant or cuisine.
Located in the Clark Fulton neighborhood, just south of Ohio City, Las Dos Fronteras is a laid-back family run operation. Set in the home of the short-lived El Buen Gusto — home to one of the best Cubano sandwiches in town — this latest outfit looks pretty much the same, sporting a bright and airy dining room with seating for close to 100. The menu is old-school Mexican, with a large assortment of tacos and tamales, burritos and tortas, and a few large platters and specialties.
What Fronteras lacks in creativity and execution, it makes up for in price. Most items are between $2 and $6, and nothing on the menu climbs above the $10 mark. Meals start with a basket of chips and bland, mild tomato salsa. We're still waiting for the spicier house salsa that our server promised to deliver. A pale, run-of-the-mill quesadilla ($1.50) is soft and squishy, bearing none of the griddle-fried crispness that gives the snack its textural charm. The kitchen also decided to swap out the corn tortilla that we ordered for a large flour shell.
The kitchen was out of pork tamales so we ended up with chicken ($1.75), an agreeable replacement that featured moist shredded meat inside soft corn dough. A bowl of warm salsa verde on the side added nice bright acidity but zero heat. That same warm green salsa is ladled over a trio of tasty chicken enchiladas ($8.99), which are paired with rice and refried beans. Had the chicken in mole sauce not been dry white meat, the dish ($6.50) could have been a winner. The dark and earthy sauce is surprisingly complex, and the plate comes with a basket of warm corn tortillas.
Service here can be carefree to the point of indifferent. Our waitress overfilled a glass of water in her hand, spilling a large amount of it on the floor. Rather than mop it up, she simply stepped around the mess the rest of the evening. Also, if you like a cold beer or tart Margaritas with your Mexican food, this is not the place for you as they serve no booze.
Camino, a contemporary new taco and tequila bar, fits right into the Warehouse District neighborhood it calls home. The space is modern, colorful and hip, with plenty of seating options that range from communal high-tops to cushy banquettes. A few benches feature seatbacks fashioned from the tailgates of old pickup trucks — cool but likely none too comfortable.
This locally owned spot keeps things simple with a streamlined menu that focuses on snacks, small plates and tacos. A dozen interesting starters include a warm cheese and chorizo dip ($5.95) called choriqueso that's served with a basket of salty chips. Hot, crisp and remarkably flaky empanadas ($6.95) come filled with cheese and potato, chicken and potato, and shredded beef. Guacamole ($5.95) is ripe and fruity, with just the right tartness and texture.
A great meal can be made just from the starters, paired with a cold Mexican beer or Margarita. Skip the El Classico ($7) Margarita, which is weak and sour in the worst way, and order the Don ($11), a boozier version made with Don Julio blanco, Grand Marnier, fresh lime and agave nectar.
All but one taco features warm corn tortillas in place of dull flour — a requisite that's rarely followed. Only the Baja ($3), a nice marriage of crispy fried cod, crunchy shredded cabbage and spicy mayo, comes in flour. Priced at $3 or $4, the tacos come filled with grilled flank steak, citrusy shrimp, shredded pork and grilled avocado, which would have been a lot better without the stewed tomato topping. Listed as an appetizer, the chicken enchiladas ($8.95) can easily double as an entrée. Three corn tortillas are wrapped around tender shredded chicken, smothered in mild red salsa and topped with melted cheese.
A roomy front patio is perfect for watching the Warehouse District scene unfold. Pair that view with a few tacos and cervezas and you've got the makings of a great meal.
Las Dos Fronteras
3292 Fulton Rd., 216-651-6943.
1300 West Ninth St., 216-621-TACO