Sunday, May 18, 2008
Restaurant Review: Pena’s Mexican Grill
You probably drove by Pena's on Zang Boulevard a hundred times without even seeing it.
DALLAS Would you say you have driven by Pena’s Mexican Grill a plethora of times? What is a plethora? We would not like to think that a person would tell someone he has done something a plethora of times, and then find out that that person has no idea what it means to have done something a plethora of times. We are not such people. We like to use big words to embiggen our self-image.
You probably glazed over that opening the same way you drove by Pena's a hundred times without even seeing it, on your way to the Bishop Arts District or the Oak Cliff El Fenix. Or perhaps you've never driven by Pena's because you live in North Dallas and didn't realize that Dallas extended south of I-30, but you've driven past your own personal Pena's in your hurry to get to the drive-thru at Taco Bell before the line for the fajita-grilled stuft burrito got any longer.
Pena's, you see, is about as nondescript as a restaurant can get, at least from the outside. It is located in an unassuming row of businesses, all with heavily tinted windows and a rather unkempt facade, just a stone's throw from the mighty Trinity River (which, incidentally, can be crossed by stepping on just a couple of those stones) and across from Lake Cliff Park. The inside of Pena's, however, is like stepping into another building. Mustard-yellow walls and a semi-open kitchen soothe any anxiousness that came with feeling like you were taking a chance by walking into a place you could have sworn was closed.
Let's get this out of the way now: Please go to Pena's, and, if you like it, tell a couple of people. This is the kind of neighborhood joint/near-downtown lunch spot you’ve been looking for. Finally, you can brag about discovering the next big thing in restaurants, instead of bragging about discovering the next big thing growing on the side of your neck.
The other reason we're begging you to go is because we want to go back again – many times, in fact – but we're fearful for its future. On our recent weekday lunch visit, at 12:30, we were one of two tables, surrounded by about 15 empty ones. Staffed by the chef and a lone, chipper server (her can-do attitude made up for the apparent lack of experience), it has a charm that you won’t find at the Mia's clones north of the river.
But what about the food, you say? Stop talking out loud while you read, people are staring. Chips and salsa passed the chips and salsa test; thick, salty chips were paired with a thin, mild salsa, with chunks of onion that added some depth. We didn't ask, but it sure tasted house-made. Pena's offers a surprisingly wide-array of choices from standard Tex-Mex fare to not-as standard fish and quail dishes. Also surprising was that it was out of quail on our visit. All the more reason to go back a second time.
A starter of the special nachos ($5.95) was smothered in seasoned ground beef, melted cheddar cheese, and chunky guacamole spiked with a nice dose of fresh lime juice. Steak tacos al carbon ($6.95) were as they should be – tender, slices of marinated beef inside two warm tortillas. The beef was a tad chewy, but the marinade made the chewing a happy affair. The beef fajitas ($10.95) were well-seasoned, and the vegetables were perfectly skillet-fried. Plus, the fajitas were a full portion, not the lunch portion that so many restaurants try to get away with. The grilled chicken with chipotle sauce ($9.95) was served fresh off the grill with a nice smoky flavor that was nicely balanced by a creamy chipotle sauce and accompanied by some tasty grilled vegetables and potatoes. The place is BYOB so you'll need to bring your own wine/beer/Saint-Bernard-with-martini-shaker if you want your booze fix, you lushes.
On our each-of-us-has-an-El-Guapo-to-face-five-gavel scale, where one gavel is shyness as your El Guapo and five gavels is the *actual* El Guapo, we give Pena's Mexican Grill three and three-quarters gavels, or a lack of education as your El Guapo. So, educate yourself by checking out Pena's today or visiting your local public library for more information.
Two local attorneys applying their trained legal minds to the world of culinary arts (or at least it's sorta like that).
Pegasus News Content partner - The Law Reviewers
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