Country singer Lyle Lovett raised hackles a few years ago when he said he refused to eat Mexican food east of the Mississippi River, deeming its quality subpar. The insistence of fans caused him to retreat from his stance, but there's at least a kernel of truth in the Texas singer's original notion. In New Orleans, however, the arrival of Del Fuego Taqueria is working to change that perception one handmade tortilla at a time.
If you're not a believer in the power of a high-quality tortilla, trust in Del Feugo's David Wright to make you a convert. While these building blocks of Mexican cuisine are a disappointment at many area restaurants — too dry, too gummy or stretched to the size of a hubcap — Wright's tortillas, both corn and flour, prove to be the kind of culinary stage mom that makes other ingredients shine.
The foundation of the tortillas leaves plenty of room for each of the menu's many fresh, tongue-tingling flavors to have a moment in the sun. An array of seven salsa options allows for the exploration of the intricacies of various peppers and spices: the deep, robust smoke of chipotle in the salsa negra and the citrus-flecked bite of the roasted habanero are two standouts. Guacamole is serviceable on its own but becomes a bedazzled spectacle when served "loaded" with everything from jewel-toned pomegranate seeds to chunky bites of chicharrones. There's a kind of childish exuberance that's subtly at work inside Del Fuego, evident in touches like the Willy Wonka-level gluttonous dips, primary-colored washcloth napkins and a framed Star Wars poster (in Spanish, of course).
The build-your-own approach of Del Fuego's menu continues with tacos, offering a wide range of meat-plus-salsa combinations. The Ensenada-style fried fish and the juicy, slow-braised barbacoa goat are two solid picks, but some of the more familiar options — such as carne asada, which arrived slightly dry and stringy — stumble. The succulent ground chorizo proves that some meats can be even better when freed from their casing, but the crumbly texture makes a burrito a better vehicle for its delivery.
If you're looking to expand beyond the Mexican restaurant mainstays of tacos, burritos and dips, a number of regional Mexican entrees show off the chef's culinary chops. Duck enchiladas are smothered in a rich, dense mole negro and speckled with sesame seeds. Most frequently associated with the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the mole negro at Del Fuego possesses the molasses color, syrupy thickness and toasted, subtly sweet layers of flavor that make it one of the top-tier moles in the city.
The rack of ribs arrives as a small present charmingly wrapped in banana leaves, with a clean achiote spice rub that avoids the pitfall of dry rub grit and tastes lemony and bright.
If you're an agave devotee, Del Fuego has one of the most expansive collections of tequila and mezcal in the city, divided into three pages from blanco to anejo. There's a type of tequila to pique the interest of every palate, with colorful tasting notes that run the gamut from spicy raisin to banana with a hint of tobacco. The Pierde Almas Joven mezcal has become a personal favorite, with a floral and cedar flavor that tastes like a boozy garden party. Each shot is served in a traditional tiny wooden bowl that resembles a miniature turtle shell and is accompanied by a diminutive glass of "palate cleansing" fresh-squeezed juice. Cocktails are tequila heavy and spice-laden, and the tamarind-flavored The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a slow-burning drink with an ancho-coated rim.
Whether patrons dig into a crunchy jicama salad on one of two plant-lined patios or sidle up to the bar for a high-end margarita, Del Fuego has created the kind of playful dining destination that will help put New Orleans on the map as a city with improved Mexican dining options.