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Midwestern Mexican at Mazatlán

Observer Scene | Thursday, February 19, 2009

The city of Mazatlán, Mexico lies 1,700 miles southwest of Notre Dame. Much closer is Mazatlán Authentic Mexican Restaurant; located just past Bethel College – an easy four-mile, 10-minute drive on McKinley. Along with La Esperanza, the local Hacienda chain and the Colorado-based chain Chipotle, Mazatlán is one of the few Mexican restaurants around South Bend, and it makes a stand as one of the area’s finest.

Mazatlán’s menu is astonishingly simple to comprehend, even to the staunchest Hispanophobe. A glossary of terms in the menu simply explains foods like enchiladas and burritos. And with Philly Cheese Steak-inspired dishes, almost anyone is sure to find something that appeals to them.

The fresh warm chips and homemade red salsa are brought to the table immediately. This excellent combination is a good start as an appetizer, but the quick eater might be surprised at how spicy the salsa is. That being said, diners with a taste for twang will enjoy the unlimited teaser.

Something barely mentioned on the menu yet completely worth trying is the horchata. This sweetened rice-based beverage has the appearance of milk and has the slightly creamy cooling qualities of milk, especially after the salsa. But the similarities end there. Mazatlán’s horchata, ordered by the pitcher, has a taste of hazelnut and cinnamon that will surely be unique to most American-bred palates. Mazatlán also offers drink specials on well-liked margaritas and tequilas.

Almost all appetizers are miniature versions of entrées, but this can help diners get a broader experience out of their visit. The quesadillas are almost big enough for a light meal. Although they make marvelous leftovers, it would be hard not to finish these juicy chicken numbers. Pairing these with the red salsa can add a kick to the tender cheesy flavor of the quesadillas.

When the entrées come, most diners will be ready to try something a bit new. The enchiladas are done well, but their blandness is somewhat of a let down after the spiciness of the chips and salsa and the savoriness of the chicken quesadillas. The pork carnitas, paired excellently with rice, are surprisingly tender – enough to shred with a fork – and have a remarkable hint of smoked flavor. For those not willing to change it up, the quesadillas, especially the cheesy 12-inch Larissa’s Quesadilla, are solid choices. All meals are generously portioned, and one of the best parts of Mazatlán is the leftovers.

To the first-time diners, the horchata is a must. Mazatlán’s many daily lunch and dinner offer enough variety for any level diner to try something at least a little bit new. With lunch specials under $5 and “combination dinners” under $7, Mazatlán won’t stretch many wallets. Appealingly non-American, the restaurant is absolutely a good investment for those looking to branch out from dining hall taquitos and lobster-ish quesadillas.

Mazatlán offers attractive Mexican food. As for the “authentic” in the title, they won’t be fooling any Mexicans, but the food is certainly a good alternative for Michiana. Thinking back on it, some of the restaurant’s best offerings were based on cheese, a Midwestern staple. Of course, the pleasant staff doesn’t speak with Hispanic/Minnesotan fusion accents, but the faded green and orange walls do certainly convey a warming blandness native to the Midwest. Even the style of décor, albeit Mexican-inspired, has a flair of your friend from Wisconsin’s mom’s house. Mazatlán accepts its Midwesternness and seems even to embrace it to their advantage.

Contact J.J. Rees at jrees@nd.edu.