El Mesõn Restaurante Mexicano
2204 Hamilton Place Blvd.
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37421
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
11 a.m.-11 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it.
It's a Friday night. You're ready to kick off the weekend by going out to eat, and you're thinking Mexican. Now, Chattanooga has a plethora of Mexican restaurants, so which to choose? Decisions, decisions. Well, for the past 17 years in this city, a main weekend Mexican experience has been ... a guy singing classic rock, folk and pop songs?
Eddie Pontiac has become a bit of a local staple, as El Mesõn next to Hamilton Place Mall added his solo-music-mix flavor to their menu ages ago, and I would venture to say most people living in this city for awhile (and many tourists) know exactly who he is. But to be a staple, you need a stapler, and that is where El Mesõn comes in, as it’s the food that has helped drive the prongs in.
You would initially think pulling up to El Mesõn on a weekend night that you are going to have to wait because of the fact the parking lot is usually full. But fear not! This is a HUGE restaurant, which can accommodate the crowds that show up on the weekends, and they also have a large outdoor patio area.
And as soon as I walked in on this busy Friday night—bam, bam, bam—I was seated immediately, the waitress was right there and the drink order was taken and fulfilled promptly, though at the end of this meal I was left with unfilled drinks during the dessert course. Walking to my table I passed by the local legend, Mr. Eddie Pontiac, as he gleefully belted out "American Pie," and this would not be "the day the music died."
The menu is a bit broader than what you would expect from a Mexican restaurant in this price range, which is reasonable at about $8-$15 per entrée. The nachos included with all meals were crispy and warm, and as salty as some nachos are, they weren’t as extremely salty as nachos I’ve had at other places.
The chips came with two salsas, though others are available upon request, and the chunkier of these two was loaded with cilantro and chopped onions. Though I enjoy a good balance of cilantro with other flavors, a few scoops that snagged several cilantro leaves tasted like feet to me, not that I know what feet taste like.
However, an aversion to cilantro that many have is well-known. Cilantro is a tricky herb that tastes differently to different people, and El Mesõn was on top of that, as the other salsa was a well-mixed blend of tomato, onions and jalapeño without the cilantro, for all the haters out there.
I always try to pick a healthful choice at each restaurant, when available, so I decided on the ceviche appetizer. The method of preparing ceviche requires no heat, as it is simply seafood marinated in citrus juices that “cook” it to consumable levels with their high levels of acidity. El Mesõn’s ceviche is shrimp marinated in lime juice and blended with their pico de gallo of diced tomatoes, onions, a nice amount of jalapeño heat and a good balance of our friend cilantro. The portion is so large it can be eaten as a healthful meal.
However, the primary method of consuming this is either with the fried nachos or tostadas served with the dish. The crispy, buttery tostadas are a better fit with the flavor profile of the ceviche, as intended, but the mechanics are a bit of a trick to keep from spilling shrimp and pico all over the table. It would require an extremely graceful individual to fully load up this corny disk and have all the ceviche remain stationary after each tectonic break to the shell. Perhaps this is why it is an appetizer, so everyone will be participating in this challenge, rather than one person feeling awkward trying to do this alone and worried about being judged by everyone else.
I used a "Jekyll and Hyde" approach with the appetizers, the "Jekyll" being the healthful ceviche and the "Hyde" being the El Mesõn dip. This dip is a molten-melted-gooey-goodness of queso, pico and ground beef that will be sure to land you in the ER if you have too much tequila and someone dares you to chug the thing. The grease was floating along the top in small pools that had not melded with the cheese, but stir it up with an aforementioned crispy nacho, scoop out some hearty chunks of beef with it and you are in for a journey of epically awesome dietary evilness, my friend, not intended for the weak of heart.
OK, stop. "Hey, what's that sound?" Eddie Pontiac knew what was "goin' down": the arrival of the main course. However, the presentation of the signature combination fajitas was not that of a singing, sizzling skillet, which I heard at other tables when theirs was brought out. I will concede that the sizzling skillet is pure theatrics, however, usually done by pouring melted butter onto the hot skillet just before bringing it out of the kitchen.
Although I had slight sizzle-envy of the other tables, it didn't necessarily mean my fajita was bad; it just didn't include the show, which left much to be desired for this feeble attempt at the presentation. However, it was well-seasoned, and the chicken and beef were not overcooked, melding well with the onions, peppers and tomatoes on the skillet. On the side plate, the lettuce was fresh and crispy with no sign of wilting, the pico with cilantro played a cameo role, the guacamole was very flavorful—blended avocado from an obvious pro—and the rice and beans were OK. However, the rice especially lacked flavor. The wraps were warm and soft and didn't break when loading them up with various components. This was a good fajita overall, and I have no problem recommending it when visiting El Mesõn, even without the dramatic presentation.
However, the second dish I tried, the chiles poblanos, told a different story. And not only did I have no problemos with this dish, it was my favorite thing there. This is the classic Mexican chile rellano dish, which is made from roasting a poblano pepper—an extremely large chili pepper mild in heat—filling it with cheese, dipping it in batter and deep-frying to a crispy, golden hue, which liquefies the cheese inside—then topping it off with El Mesõn's "special sauce"—BOOM—you are locked and loaded with a luscious torpedo primed to explode your palate with flavor.
The outer batter shell was not overly egg-y, which is common, and held up well to the sauce and didn't become soggy, at least for the short amount of time it remained unconsumed. As the cheese oozes out after making the first cut through the pepper and placing that first bite into your mouth, the thought of taking the next chunk out of this masterpiece enters your mind before you are even finished chewing the present one. It's a fine dish, perfect for those who want something highly flavorful that isn't very spicy. Well done, mi amigos and amigas.
As much as I wish I could, I can't say the same for the spinach quesadilla, which I really wanted to love. I'm a spinach fanatic. I was one of those weird kids whose favorite food was spinach, and not just because I wanted to sprout muscles like Popeye. However, the flavor of the spinach was completely overpowered by the extreme saltiness of the dish. This was an unacceptable amount of salt to me, and even with my devout love for spinach, it was my least favorite of all the dishes I tried. The cheese was warm, melty and, did I mention, salty? The surprise jalapeños scattered throughout provided a good kick, but even that heat couldn't quell the fact that the spinach tasted like it was harvested in a salt mine.
The chimichanga was decadent, and the strawberry filling was sweet magma flowing out of its crispy cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled domain, and every bite was a fruity eruption of sugar and spice and everything nice. The shell was a perfect union with those flavors, and it really made me want to come back to experience El Mesõn's marriage of savory entrées with this chimichanga wrap.
As for the flan, I was a fan, as I hoped it would be good so that I could make this bad pun. Fortune smiled upon me this day, however, much to the bane of jokes everywhere, in the form of this traditional sweet custard plateau dripping with chocolate. After placing a sliver into my mouth, it began to quickly melt into a silky vanilla cream intermingling with the chocolate sauce and dispersing signals to my brain that said, "All is well." All it lacked was cilantro (OK, maybe not).
I would give El Mesõn 2 1/2 stars for the spicy atmosphere, flavorful dishes—minus the salty spinach—and decent service. However, I'm bumping it up to 3 stars for harboring Eddie Pontiac for so many years. Rock on, dude.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.