POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2013:
Authentic-er Than Most
East-side joint pleases the palate
Some might say that Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen. But when you find a good one, chances are you will go back over and over again for a long time. On a recent trip to Fiesta de Cozumel on S. Sheridan Road, I had an experience worth repeating.
Most kids could tell you at least 20 items that should be on the typically Mexican restaurant menu. And nine times out of ten, you can predict what your dining experience will be like from start to finish or salsa to check. There are, however, the typical checkpoints for the meal, such as quality of margaritas, chip thickness and crunch factor, variety of menu, and quality of service -- all of which I look for in a place that I would recommend to people or return to myself. In regard to this type of cuisine and food culture, there is no shortage of options. But in my opinion, there is only a handful of unique south-of-the-border eateries that offer a little something extra.
When I first arrived at Fiesta Cozumel, my initial thought was that it was going to be your typical Americanized Mexican restaurant. Yes, I was judging. And rightly so: I've eaten at hundreds of Mexican restaurants in my life, and to have one impress me for any reason is pretty hard to do. My expectations were not high, and I was primed to receive a basic meal without much drama. My five-year-old started spouting off the typical items that she and her siblings were interested in, and our server brought the salsa and chips. It wasn't until then -- when I tasted the hot, crispy, and refreshing pre-meal treat and looked over the menu -- that I changed my mind about the experience I was going to have.
The name itself is refreshing: "Celebration from Cozumel." I've been to the real Cozumel and, yes, it's a beautiful, high-energy, party-type atmosphere. I'm not saying this is a party joint, but the atmosphere was colorful, clean, and typically decorated. There is a small bar, and seating is spacious yet cozy.
The menu was very long and lacked no shortage of variety and options. Appetizers range from $3 to $7 and offer such items as Chicken Fondido and homemade Tortilla Soup, both of which sounded interesting, so we ordered both while enjoying our hot, fresh chips. The salsa was very flavorful and well balanced. I like my restaurant salsa pretty smooth and clean with hints of the appropriate flavors complementing the tomato base. This one hit the spot -- at one point I think I used a spoon.
For the entrees, it was much harder to decide. The choices were endless, and I was impressed with the amount of items that looked familiar from my time in actual Cozumel. I basically skipped everything that looked gringo-style and went straight for the unusual. My husband chose Steak Mazatlan ($10.99) and I chose the Cochinita Pibil ($8.99). For those of you who don't live in the Yucatan Peninsula, Cochinita Pibil is a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish prepared by roasting a pig marinated in strong acidic juices and colored with annatto seed. After the initial marinating, the meat is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked. It sounded interesting, and along with a side of guacamole and queso dip, our order was complete.
Other items of interest on the menu were Chile Colorado, a chunky stewed beef-style dish served with ranchera sauce and fresh tortillas. There was also Pescado El Jabocho, a grilled-fish-with-chipotle-sauce dish that sounded interesting, as well as Ceviche de Tostadas, a lime juice-marinated shrimp dish that served a la fresca style with cilantro and jalapeños. For you gringo lovers there are plenty of typical Mexican dishes to choose from including, burritos, chimichangas, tacos, enchiladas, and chile rellenos. All dishes are served with the expected bean and rice accompaniment as well as pico and some guacamole.
The service at Fiesta Cozumel was atypical. The servers all worked together, and while one person took our order, another brought our food, and yet another tended our beverage and refill needs. I liked the idea and felt it provided a more complete dining experience.
Our appetizer arrived and smelled like a proper Mexican kitchen. The cumin, chili and tomato based Tortilla Soup was topped with crispy fried tortilla strips and a dollop of fresh sour cream. The Chicken Fondido also smelled lovely and featured chunks of tender chicken drowning in creamy white cheese and mixed with spices and aromatics. It was so hearty, my chips broke off in the dip. The entrees arrived shortly after and were hot and plentiful. My dish -- the Cochinita -- was unique and very savory. I could taste the citrus flavors in the dish and the meat was incredibly tender and juicy. My husband's steak was also tender and came with marinated vegetables and shrimp on top. The guacamole was fresh and the queso sweet and creamy with hints of spice and cumin.
For dessert, we enjoyed the Flan and Fried Ice Cream, both of which are made fresh daily. They were wonderful and created the perfect ending to a satisfying meal. The Flan ($3.75) was soft and caramelized but light and perfectly sweet. The Fried Ice Cream ($3.99) was crispy and cinnamon-sprinkled with frozen vanilla ice cream and sticky honey on top.
Fiesta Cozumel also offers daily specials and small lunch size portions for guests to enjoy. Their cantina features jumbo-sized margaritas, unique mojito-style drinks, and a wide range of Mexican and domestic beers. The atmosphere is friendly, and the food is tasty and plentiful. I enjoyed my time there and look forward to returning with friends to sample other interesting dishes on the menu.
If you're looking for a unique place that puts a twist on the predictable Mexican restaurant scene, give Fiesta Cozumel a try. You'll find a place of Cozumel-style celebration without having to fly south of the border.
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