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Thursday, May 23,2013

A fresh spin on the taste of Mexico

By Clay Fong
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Antonio’s, subtitled A Taste of Mexico, is a new addition to Longmont’s Main Street dining scene. Ambience here is upscale, with contemporary Southwestern art and dark woods, creating a sense of elegant intimacy. Yet Antonio’s is still the kind of welcoming spot that features a children’s menu and prices more reasonable than the trappings would indicate.

Antonio’s has an intriguing pedigree, as the owners also run a sibling restaurant in Taos, N.M., that hotbed of Southwestern cuisine. The menu here is at once both familiar and surprising, and entrees fall into “traditional New Mexican” or “traditional Mexican” categories. Interestingly enough, there isn’t a bowl of green chile on the menu, and the only sopapilla offered is a savory one. New Mexican offerings include enchiladas, tacos and burritos.

The Mexican menu counts the common fajita as one of its selections. Beyond that, there’s a corn truffle (or smut) enchilada with green mole, a ground-beef-stuffed relleno, and seafood options, including enchiladas loaded with lobster and crab. Our top-notch server, Ronald, recommended the seafood paella special. But when trying a Mexican restaurant for the first time, I prefer to assess how the kitchen handles the basics.

In this spirit, friend Jon and I began dinner with an $8 chile con queso starter. The normally loquacious Jon was rendered speechless by his first bite — it was abundantly clear this wasn’t your usual canned chile and Velveeta special. Not as thick as some overwrought versions, the texture closely resembled that of a lusciously creamy French master sauce.

Fresh diced chile made this stunning dish come alive, although even if this ingredient was missing, this decadent appetizer would still rank as the best I’ve tasted. Not so incidentally, this preparation also arrived with a side of smoky yet fresh-tasting red salsa that every aficionado of this dip should sample.

Mastery of the classics was apparent in Jon’s $11 chile relleno, prepared with a plump Hatch green chile. My friend was quick to note that the quality of the Monterey Jack cheese within was noticeably above that of most examples. Those who prefer a softer, eggy batter versus a crisp exterior coating will likely embrace Antonio’s interpretation as the benchmark for this dish.

From the Mexican category, I opted for the $16 Barbacoa de Borrego. Unlike the barbacoa dished out at popular burrito chains, Antonio’s takes a cue from the cuisine of central Mexico and uses leg of lamb instead of beef. Marinated in guajillo pepper, cumin and garlic, the lamb was all at once flavorful, moist and tender, with a texture resembling that of pulled meat. It arrived wrapped in a green banana leaf, which, as Ronald pointed out, helped the lamb retain savory juices. Putting the meat into warm, soft, flour tortillas and alternating bites of the expertly prepared beans and rice made for a wholly satisfying dining experience.

Since sopapillas were not on the dessert menu, we had to make do with a $6.50 slice of chocolate cake. This dense and fudgy number was accented by a subtle whisper of chipotle pepper. Fans of spiced Mexican hot chocolate will enjoy this sophisticated finishing touch. As illustrated by this dessert, Antonio’s puts a fresh spin on Mexican (old and New) dishes with a level of high, perhaps even flawless, execution at unexpectedly decent prices.

Antonio's — A Taste of Mexico is located at 246 Main St., Longmont. Call 303-772-9923.

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