The rise of taco trucks and taquerias after Hurricane Katrina jumpstarted New Orleans' education on authentic, casual Mexican eats. Locals reared on Cuco's and Pancho's Mexican Buffet suddenly had abundant new opportunities to learn the delicious truth about carnitas and lengua, pastor-style pork, tortas, blisteringly hot green salsa and "Mexican Coke" made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup.
There were a few outposts for this type of cooking before Katrina, and many of them were found in Gretna. So I had to smile at the irony as I made the same trek to the West Bank to visit a Mexican restaurant engineered to the softer-edged Tex-Mex style that once ruled supreme.
El Mesquite Grill is a new restaurant with very familiar flavors and format, one that specializes in large, inexpensive combination plates of burritos, enchiladas and tacos, all balancing against each other and sharing a thick, mellow, tomato-and-cumin-based sauce. But like a diner with a really good burger or fried chicken basket, El Mesquite's tight, fresh-tasting renditions are reminders of how appealing this easy-to-love food can be when offered without all the chain-restaurant shortcuts. Ground beef is lean, fried taquitos are crisp and golden, and melted cheese is copious but still used as a measured ingredient rather than a suffocating gooey blanket.
Meals start with warm, paper-thin chips and salsa served in small pitchers. The salsa is quite mild, and that theme carries across the sprawling menu. Shrimp a la Diablo, grilled with chipotle, is the beginning and end of the inherently spicy dishes. This also isn't the place for nuanced flavor. After trying disappointingly flat, sweet chicken mole, I recommend sticking with combinations of tortilla-wrapped meats and cheese or the grilled dinners, which benefit from a deep marinade, light char and fresh and plentiful garnishes. To really go big, order the parrillada, or "barbecue," special, which approximates a backyard cookout on a plate. Allegedly intended for two, it produces enough grilled steak, chicken, shrimp and chorizo for at least three people, and with all the grilled tomatoes, peppers and onions and a stack of tortillas you can roll your own tacos as big as you can handle.
El Mesquite is the sister restaurant to Mi Patio, which El Paso, Texas-native Lou Gomez opened in Ponchatoula a few years back. Gomez moved to Louisiana in the early 1980s for a job at a chemical plant and entered the restaurant business after retiring from his first career. In Gretna, he took over a rambling but handsome complex of paneled dining rooms that was originally Visko's, a popular seafood restaurant. It can feel cavernous when the restaurant is not busy, and it takes a lot of people to make El Mesquite feel busy. But the waiters are uniformly attentive and engaging and even on slow nights the place didn't have the desolate mood of an empty restaurant.
Every Wednesday feels a little like Cinco de Mayo when Ovi-G & the Froggies, a family band, performs salsa and soca in the main dining room, and the 44-oz. margaritas start making the rounds. This Wednesday actually is Cinco de Mayo, so El Mesquite should be in its glory.