- 250 Evans Ave., Suite 101, Reno, NV, 89501
- Overall User Rating:
- (1 rating)
- 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
- Official Web Site:
Lovely but deadly.
That could be the motto of the habañero salsa displaying its colors in the salsa fresca bar at the appealing new Arroyo Mexican Grill in the Freight House District.
On an early visit to the restaurant, I balance hillocks of pico de gallo on homemade tortilla chips or dredge the chips in smoky chipotle salsa. But on a recent visit, I improvidently scoop up an unknown salsa, though it's labeled habañero (I miss that) and the telltale orange bits are as obvious as bad beans.
In the way of this chile, the heat begins as a tingle that soon constricts my entire tongue at mid-palate. Suddenly, I'm whooshed back a few years to a taco spot in Hermosillo, Mexico, as Mexican friends tried to wave me off a dollop of incendiary habañero salsa I'd just unwittingly selected.
Too late then, too late now. The waitress asks if I want milk.
But the fire isn't unwelcome. It tells me, for one, that Arroyo isn't afraid of heat when it's appropriate. We need more of that hereabouts.
Three types of Mexican restaurant populate Northern Nevada.
The first type, of which there are regrettably many, is thoroughly Americanized, with sludgy beans and yellow cheese the order of the day, and salsa about as spicy as tapioca.
The second type is sometimes hole-in-the-wall modest, often found in Sparks, with menus that range from Jalisco or Michoacan dishes to these traditions mingled with familiar American favorites.
The third type is, well, it's represented by Arroyo Mexican Grill. The restaurant feels new for Northern Nevada.
Yes, the menu draws inspiration from owner Tony Arroyo's native Michoacan and other regions, but it does so with a heightened, nuevo Mexicano, California-cuisine concern for technique, ingredients, flavors and presentation.
It's no accident, I think, that Arroyo owns restaurants in Santa Barbara and Montecito, Calif., two of America's ritziest precincts, the latter boasting Oprah Winfrey as a homeowner.
The habañero burn continues. It's cooled, unexpectedly, by the mild table salsa — too sweet and tomatoed, the only salsa disappointment — and, appropriately, by creamy chunks of guacamole piled in a molcajete lava rock vessel.
A cart trundles round to make the guacamole tableside. In go freshly scooped avocado flesh, red onions, tomatoes and cilantro. More salt? Yes, and some lemon, too. The citrus is obligingly tendered, but it might be nice to have it on the cart.
Still, the guacamole is the best in town, wonderfully textured, not like the bland baby food served elsewhere.
Tortilla soup arrives in a swooping bowl the size of a small basin. All this for $6.95?
The waitress suggests the kitchen divide the soup so my companion and I can both spoon into generously supplied grilled chicken shreds, chopped vegetables retaining fresh bite, and nicely chewy clumps of melted cheese I rummage for to eat first.
Crema thickens the broth and lends a little sourness. I toss in more tortilla chips to up the crunch quotient.
Art of tequila
Arroyo Mexican Grill offers a lighter take on the brawny Spanish Mission décor that characterized many California Mexican restaurants, especially Southern California restaurants, in the 1960s and '70s.
There are tiled floors, mesquite tables, and a mesquite bar with reproduction hitching posts that look like they could hold a bull. Iron and leather chandeliers were made in Mexico.
An image of a tequila plant being harvested pays tribute to Arroyo's 100-plus tequilas, many of which are arranged like collectibles in glass cases that partition the dining area.
At one dinner, though, it's not tequila that tempts but tinga, a Oaxacan chicken and tomato stew that fills taquitos. Also worth the time are rajas fashioned from homemade corn tortillas, queso fresco, and chilaca chiles grilled to coax out some of their gentle sweetness.
Those corn tortillas are worth more discussion. Because they're homemade, they're charmingly irregular — and more moist than even the best packaged versions.
Corn tortillas are mounded with admirably crisp pork carnitas not always tender enough on the inside to provide consistent contrast. That consistency is essential, and absent this misstep with a fundamental dish, Arroyo Mexican Grill would have received four stars.
Mexican rice and rich, inky black beans, however, are utterly fresh.
Enchiladas arroyo feature halibut and shrimp, the pop of roasted red peppers and drizzles of tomatillo salsa. It's an elegant arrangement that some will enjoy as is, but not us.
We are inveterate tinkerers in my crowd, and a little salsa heat recommends itself. Can we deploy the habañero in less than magma-like measure? Better not try. Go with chipotle salsa instead.
We'll save the habañero for a leisurely visit when we can really add fuel to the fire with tequila.