Mexicali puts the fresh in Tex-Mex

Right from the start, it's damned good.

You're greeted with homemade salsa, slightly chilled and redolent of just-off-the-vine tomatoes, tart citrus, smoky cilantro and whispers of green onion. It's served in a carafe - and of course it's accompanied by a basket of toasty tortilla chips.

Add to this two essential building blocks of most Tex-Mex experiences from the appetizers on the ambitious menu. There's guacamole ($8), crafted tableside in a molcajete by a genuine brujo skilled in the transcendent properties of avocados. Toothsome hunks of the fruit are blended with chopped tomato and onion and finely diced jalapeno and, yes, a bit more of that stunning and distinctive cilantro. It's so tongue-teasingly good you have to fight the urge to go out the back door to see if they have their own avocado orchard.

Then, to round out the trinity, there's the queso - or, in the oddly gringo parlance of the menu, Mexicali's Cheese Dip ($5.25). This is not the watery, mustard yellow queso folks often find in New England but, instead, a staggering flavor event anchored in a dense white cheese and incorporating several seasonings and jalapenos.

There you are, then, barely 10 minutes into your inaugural dining experience at Mexicali Fresh Mex Grill in a small Pawcatuck strip center across the street from Stonington High School - and you could quite possibly be as happy and potentially full as you'd need to be at any meal out.

But those are just to get the ball rolling.

As you savor the greatness, take a look around and enjoy the atmosphere. Like many Mexican places, the walls are tropically painted in rich tones of orange, purple-blue and cactus green. The booths are high-backed and friendly. If you're of a mind - for example, the PGA Championship is on and Phil's chasing Rory or maybe it's the other way around - you can watch big screens while you eat in the wonderfully welcoming bar area with its tile-topped counter, tall tables, and designer margarita and mojito recipes.

The menu is indeed wide-reaching, with several traditional as well as creative spin-offs in categories like enchiladas, chimichangas, tacos, quesadillas, burritos, fajitas and, helpfully for the overwhelmed, combo platters. There's even a thoughtful and creative section for vegetarians that goes well beyond a sliced squash or bell pepper.

On one visit, I asked for an order of Mexico City Tacos ($13.75). The focus is on three soft corn tortillas overloaded with lean slices of charbroiled skirt steak, caramelized onions, Jack and Cotija cheeses and, in an inspired flourish, chopped mango. This is basically a five-way battle royale of taste, with each component jabbing and tickling your tongue. The overall impression is amazing. Oh, and the tacos are placed in a twin W-shaped holder for handling convenience. On a separate plate came toothsome yellow rice and smoothly textured black beans - along with a small dipping bowl of what seemed to be a pineapple sauce. Not sure why but, wow, ladled across the rice and even the tacos, it was an alchemical contribution.

My wife Eileen, sworn enemy of carnivorous behavior (SECB), delighted in the opportunity to try the Veggie Fiesta ($11.95), a tripartite presentation including a spinach enchilada, a chile relleno and a cheese enchilada. This plate included pinto beans and white rice.

Despite the veggie-ness, this was not a light undertaking. There was a slightly oily quality to the enchilada, though the spinach was flavorful and the surface tomatillo sauce offered a pleasantly lingering tartness. The relleno boasted a flash-fried fresh poblano pepper stuffed with a delightful but heavy cheese presence. And the cheese enchilada? Well, yes, it had a lot of cheese - this is a good thing, just to clarify - but, again, the tortilla had an oily quality. Maybe they dredge their tortillas so they're not dried out on the stove?

Finally, another entree that beckoned was the California Pork Burrito ($11.75). Delicate chunks of pork shoulder, marinated in a chile rub, were tucked into a giant flour tortilla with delicate fluffed rice and topped with a thin but tangy green sauce. It's a beautiful concept but the rice-to-meat ratio was skewed and I desperately wanted more of the pork.

Service is familial and very attentive, and Mexicali at once vaults to a priority slot on our "let's eat out tonight" list. We envision many leisurely visits as we work our way through the tantalizing menu.


Mexicali Fresh Mex Grill

163 S. Broad Street, Pawcatuck
(860) 495-5758

Cuisine: Classic Tex-Mex with Continental elements

Atmosphere: Lovely and cozy, with requisite tropical colors, comfy seating and a small bar with three big-screen televisions.

Service: Busy staff that's constantly centered on your care and feeding

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs,; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.

Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $5.25-$15.45, standard Tex-Mex fare $7.75-$16.45, specialty entrees $12.45-$18.45, desserts $4.75-$4.95. Lunch menu slightly less.

Handicap access: Small step up into reception area

Reservations: Not a bad idea to call ahead on a weekend evening

Credit cards: All majors


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