Newfangled Mexican food has been received in New Orleans this year with the kind of fervor once reserved for pop groups and teen heartthrobs. Arana (Spanish for spider) is in the middle of this culinary wave, and it seems designed to attract diners eager to venture just outside of their Tex-Mex comfort zone.
Arana sits in a heavily trafficked section of Magazine Street full of 20-something clientele partial to Oxford cloth shirts and flip-flops, as well as out-of-town guests looking to snag a bite between shopping destinations. (Tarek Tey, one of the restaurant's co-owners, also is behind several of the dining hubs on this stretch of street.) While there are some Americanized Mexican choices on the menu (nachos, American-style tacos), those looking for more diverse Mexican options will not be disappointed.
The space has been upgraded since it housed Nacho Mama's, with a looming, quirky spider sculpture spinning a web over an entire wall and jewel-toned lights peeking through a cluster of Moravian punched-tin stars that dangle whimsically over the bar.
Tortas are some of Arana's strongest menu offerings, and the restaurant is one of a handful of Uptown spots that serve the decadent Mexican-style sandwiches. Using crunchy, oval-shaped loaves of traditional bolillo bread, smears of crema, thick black bean spread and avocado with a snowy sprinkle of Cotija cheese, the tortas are sloppy and big enough to rival the messiest po-boy. The torta ahogada is very flavorful, with succulent pork and tangy cumin-pickled onions offset by a mouth-singeing, scarlet-colored chili dipping sauce. The sauce should be carefully explored until the appropriate heat level is reached.
Mole-smothered chicken is properly smoky and generously portioned, with almost a quarter of a bird served with thin, sweetly spiced sauce with the kind of familiar-meets-exotic flavor profile that won't scare off those taking an initial toe-dip in mole waters. Queso fundido also successfully walks the line between the known and the novel, with a thick brick of milky, mellow Oaxacan cheese grilled and dappled with peppery ground chorizo. This dish is a strong jumping-off point for those looking to abandon the gluey cheese dip ubiquitous at Mexican restaurant chains.
An array of taco fillings are offered up on unremarkable corn tortillas, but al pastor (with bright pineapple salsa), tender pan-roasted corn and lightly beer-battered fish drizzled with the smooth bite of jalapeno cream sauce make a fine trio.
A good selection of mezcal and tequila drinks will attract agave fans, with a shot triptych of sangrita — featuring tequila, spicy bloody mary mix and tart lemonade — and a thick, sweet horchata serving as perfect boozy bookends to the meal.
Service is attentive and considerate, if somewhat green. Lags in the pacing of the meal resulted in a couple of dishes arriving cold, and order mix ups — with drinks and food — reveal kinks that need to be ironed out.
Overall, Arana has found a sweet spot as a formidable option in a busy stretch of Magazine Street, with dishes that will please a crowd hankering for familiar Mexican and more adventurous flavors.