You know the drill at the typical Mexican restaurant: Someone comes by with a big basket of tortilla chips, a bowl of salsa, and the menus. You order, eat some chips, and wait. You sip from margaritas from gigantic stemmed glasses. The meals arrive, steaming hot on plates too hot to touch. Waiting for them to cool, you eat more chips. As for the food, it could be Mexican, Tex-Mex, or some other hybrid of the Southwest. Real, authentic Mexican food is hard to find in Boston. Taquerias abound, and there's always a line outside the Border Cafe in Harvard Square, but the universe of upscale Mexican dining is not rapidly expanding.
Ole Mexican Grill, which opened in Cambridge in 1996, boasts an allegiance to two regions of Mexico, Veracruz and Oaxaca. This is a lively, lovely room with Mexican mosaic tiled tables, walls painted in warm oranges and yellows, and dark, romantic lighting.
Chips arrive, but they are warm and obviously made in-house, so they're welcome. The salsa doesn't set our mouths on fire but has a nice kick. Our margaritas -- one made with Sauza Gold tequila and Grand Marnier, the other with Sauza Tres Generacionas tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice -- go down the hatch quickly. We have to order Ole's famous guacamole, which is made tableside. Avocados are dug from their shells and mixed with cilantro, tomato, lime juice, onion, and jalapeno pepper, and served in a traditional Mexican bowl made of volcano rock. The prevailing taste of fresh avocado is refreshing, but the guacamole could use a pinch of salt. We still manage to finish it.
For the summer, Chef Erwin Ramos has introduced several lighter dishes to the menu, including pescado a la Veracruzana, or pan-fried red snapper with roasted tomato sauce. It arrives with a pyramid of cilantro-infused rice and doused in a fiery sauce studded with pearl onions, stuffed olives, and pickled jalapenos. The fish is pleasantly spicy and perfectly cooked.
Tacos made with soft flour tortillas stuffed with tuna are another light choice. The tuna, grilled to rare but not too cool, arrives with lime wedges and a jicama and blood orange salsa, the jicama giving it a piquant edge. We don't know how authentic they are, but they're addictive.
The light-menu holdout in our group orders enchiladas with shredded chicken. Corn tortillas stuffed with chicken and smothered in Monterey Jack cheese, with black beans, sour cream, and a salsa of onions, peppers, and jicama might not be on the South Beach diet, but it's a pleasing combination.
Mexican restaurants often falter on dessert, but not Ole. We try cheesecake with fried ice cream, which swims in a raspberry and strawberry sauce. The cheesecake hints strongly of cinnamon, a spice often used in Mexican cooking that works well here.
Epigmenio Guzman and his family opened Tu y Yo right next to the Tufts University campus in 2000. The place has a spare, homey atmosphere meant to invoke the spirit of fondas, restaurants that popped up across the Mexican frontier in the 18th century. We perch in a small, painted wooden booth. A pair of diners in the next booth are speaking Spanish; mariachi music is playing in the background; and we eye the menu with anticipation. Tu y Yo does not serve the ubiquitous chips and salsa. The only disappointment is that, conditioned as we are to expect margaritas when we go to a Mexican restaurant, Tu y Yo doesn't serve those, either, because the liquor license is limited to wine and beer. Guzman makes up for this by offering 10 kinds of Mexican beer and three kinds of sangria. However, our sangria choice, red with the traditional mix of lime juice, oranges, and other fruit, is no thirst-quencher, because it is laced with too much cinnamon.
Our appetizers more than make up for these limitations, though. Crepas de cuitlacoche, a crepe filled with cuitlacoche (corn fungus) in a poblano pepper sauce, tastes like a cross between corn and mushroom. Another appetizer, jalapenos stuffed with cuitlacoche, neatly balances the fiery, tangy taste of pepper with the earthy cuitlacoche. Sopes, handmade corn tortillas topped with beans, onions, and queso anejo (a Mexican cheese that's like a strong feta), arrive with shredded beef and a fiery salsa verde. The appetizer portions are small and perfect for what we think appetizers are supposed to do: make you eager for your meal.
Guzman, who was born in Veracruz and grew up in Mexico City, spends half of each week working in the restaurant's kitchen and the other half in the front of the house. He and chef Saul Orosco tinker with the menu constantly, and they just introduced 14 new items, including seafood, beef, pork, chicken, and vegetarian entrees. Many derive from old family recipes, and the names of their inventors are listed on the menu.
Tinga, shredded beef slow-cooked in an assortment of peppers (sweet poblano, chipotle, and guajillo), is an old favorite of ours on this menu. It arrives with a side of black beans; the sauce is tomatoey, and the beef almost tastes like the Mexican version of burnt ends. Cochinita pibil, marinated shredded pork loin broiled in a tangy "Mayan" sauce with spices, is another hit. The chiles rellenos, a big, roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a mix of queso anejo, olives, and baby shrimp, swims in a delightful sauce of carrots and red peppers but arrives lukewarm. Pan-fried trout in a creamy guajillo pepper sauce had a fascinating, nutty taste, but also seems too cool. For once, the usual problem of entrees too hot to eat seems almost welcome.
A cool flan has the perfect texture and a creamy taste that lingers after our meal. On the way home we find ourselves thinking of cuitlacoche and wondering what else Guzman is planning to make with it.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
Sophia's 1/2 1270 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-7001. Chef Jeffrey Fournier creates magic with small plates in a funky dance club. Each is intelligently composed as well as delicious. And the liquor and food pairings are intriguing. (6/17/04)
Atria 137 Main St, Edgartown. 508-627-5850. Bleu 7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee. 508-539-7907. Two resort restaurants appeal to year-round residents also. Atria's attention to detail and dedication to locally grown shows on the plate. Bleu's French heritage infuses the best dishes. (6/10/04)
Grill 23 & Bar 1/2 161 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-542-2255. Crowds flock to this big restaurant with a luxe men's club look. The steaks, especially the fantastic Kobe ribeye cap, and seafood are attractions. But the place's very popularity pulls in even more fans. (6/3/04)
The Federalist Bar 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are every bit as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04)
Salts 798 Main St., Cambridge. 617-876-8444. New owners bring new luster to this intimate spot near Central Square. Chef/co-owner Gabreil Bremer's style is sophisticated and his flavors true. And the whole duck is fantastic. (5/20/04)
Scollay Square 1/2 21 Beacon St., Boston. 617-742-4988. This place has the feeling of old Boston (though the real Scollay Square was several blocks to the east). The best of the fare are classic steaks and chops. (5/13/04)