In four short years, Gabriel Zeller and Julie Mesenburg have gone from operating a single taco bar in Sandusky to overseeing a multi-concept portfolio of popular eateries that spans counties. The husband-and-wife team’s hands-on approach has propelled a rapid expansion eastward with stops in Amherst, Rocky River and Ohio City. Next up for the hungry couple: the heart of downtown Cleveland in the former Greenhouse Tavern spot.
As recently as five years ago, Zeller and Mesenburg were working for other employers. But quick success with Barra in Sandusky, which they opened in 2017, lead to Barra number two in Amherst. When a prime property became available in Rocky River, the former Sweet Melissa space, the couple jumped on it and soon opened Char Whiskey Bar. Sparkling turnkey properties on W. 25th Street in Ohio City don’t pop up every day, so when the duo walked through the recently vacated Bakersfield Tacos spot, they knew what they had to do.
While the opportunity to flip Bakersfield to Avo Modern Mexican, Zeller and Mesenburg’s latest concept, might have been fortuitous, the owners’ ability to take on the project was no accident. From the start, they have immersed themselves in the work, determined to put out a consistently high-quality product in an attractive setting with warm, genuine service. It’s not rocket science, yet so many fail to reliably deliver.
With each new concept, Zeller and Mesenburg appear to elevate their game. Whereas Barra is a casual taco- and tequila-fueled restaurant, Avo is more of a finer-dining style modern Mexican bistro. There are tacos, sure, but they’re just one item tucked into a broad, diverse and appealing menu. I stumbled upon one of my favorite new appetizers here, simply titled arepas ($12). Each tidy little stack is supported by a thick, crispy arepa. Those corn-scented cakes are topped with tender braised beef barbacoa, which is drizzled with creamy avocado sauce. Shredded cabbage and sliced radish provide textural appeal.
With a name like Avo you would expect exceptional guacamole. Here, the kitchen takes a minimal approach, letting the taste of ripe avocado do the heavy lifting – at least in the case of the base model. This “Casa” ($8) version is topped with a fresh, rustic pico de gallo and served with plenty of chips. I tend to prefer a thinner chip – these are crunch-ee – but they are fresh, grease-free and lightly salted. Other chip-friendly snacks include a half-dozen other guacs, a variety of salsas and bubbling crocks of melty queso. Consider starting with a bowl of pozole ($7), a citrusy broth studded with tender shredded pork, plump kernels of hominy and thin-sliced radish.
Avo is not a “taco bar,” but Avo does sell amazing tacos. These start with warm, plush corn tortillas that are made fresh on site. They come three to an order ($13), with customers free to mix and match fillings from a list that includes barbacoa, chorizo, shredded chicken, grilled or fried shrimp and fried avocado. All are tricked out with pico, cabbage slaw, chipotle-garlic aioli and queso fresco. Sandwich fans will appreciate a trio of two-fisted tortas starring meats like chorizo, carnitas and shredded chicken.
Avo’s “modern Mexican” label is reflected in larger plates like an espresso and chile-rubbed filet mignon, grilled shrimp bathed in a spicy cream sauce atop corn cakes, and a grilled flank steak with crispy potatoes. But other dishes come closer to classics, like a juicy roasted half-chicken ($23) smothered in chocolate-colored mole. That seductive sauce boasts an earthy sweetness and subtle heat. A Tex-Mex inspired burrito Colorado ($17) is overstuffed with grilled flank steak and Spanish rice and appropriately drenched in a mix of melted cheeses.
Avo, like its sister establishments, takes pride in its cocktail program. The house margarita ($11) sidesteps the uber-tart, uber-sweet pitfalls of the ilk in favor of a well-balanced – but plenty potent – blended cocktail. While kissing a beehive is never recommended, ordering a Kissing the Beehive ($10) at Avo is. This beguiling elixir weaves mescal, honey, grapefruit and habanero syrup into pure magic. Cocktails all arrive with flavor-appropriate rim salts and garnishes.
These days, restaurant owners need to be able to please both customers eager to dine out safely and those who still are more comfortable eating at home. Avo nails the indoor safety protocols, while offering a seamless online order and payment system. A contactless curbside handover took place at precisely the scheduled time.
Bakersfield already was an attractive space, but Avo managed to improve it. The bartop has been refinished with a slick, smooth epoxy, hickory flooring was laid throughout, comfy new furniture replaced the old, and a fresh layer of avocado-green paint is the cherry on top. Any day now, those garage doors will rise to meet the sunny side patio.
Avo Modern Mexican
2058 W. 25th St., Cleveland