It’s located on a busy corner in a former fast-food joint. The name means “fire sauce,” the chef is named Rodriguez, and chicken enchiladas are on the menu — gotta be basic Tex-Mex right?
You’d be so wrong. But then so was I when I walked into Salsa Fuego (3520 Alta Mere Dr.) the other night. A duck taco and some tuna tartare later, I walked out with my world turned topsy-turvy — and that’s not even counting the effects of the margarita.
The place isn’t much to look at. It has that “ghost of Taco Buenos past” aesthetic. But what is it? It’s not exactly a traditional Mexican food restaurant, though it has all of the ragtag charisma of a great Mexican-food hole-in-the-wall. There are no white tablecloths, no string music playing overhead, but the menu looks as though parts of it were ripped from far fancier places. To be honest, I still don’t know what to call it. Mexi-mundo? Tex-fusion? Maybe it defies categorization.
In menu-speak, the word “eclectic” often signifies a rudderless, jack-of-all-plates mishmash. But Chef Carlos Rodriguez seamlessly leads a double life in the kitchen, with one foot in the world of dressed-up traditional Mexican comfort food and the other in that of upscale international fusion. Fresh, quality ingredients and attention to detail are the ties that bind it all together.
On a recent visit, the tiny dining room, with only a dozen or so tables, was mostly empty. The room is even cozier than it used to be, thanks to a new fully stocked bar. Until recently, the place was BYOB, but now it has the kind of margarita list that would make much fancier restaurants jealous, including something called a French margarita. Ever the traditionalist, my guest and I started with a Fuego’rita ($6), which was strong enough to kill an elephant. Call me a lightweight (you’d be the first), but finishing the drink was more a point of pride than pleasure.
Our appetizers were the perfect apotheosis of Rodriguez’ double dealing. The guacamole ($3) was fresh and zesty and rooted in traditional Mexican simplicity. The tuna tartare ($12), served with mango pico de gallo, diced avocado, and artfully spackled cilantro oil, ratcheted up the razzle-dazzle.
If the apps were an exercise in contrast, the duck confit tacos ($14) were a lesson in fusion. Rodriguez offers a modern twist on the taco, using tortillas as vessels for the fatty, delicious duck but with all the trappings of a taqueria-style taco. The chicken enchiladas ($10) — with melted cheese, a poblano cream sauce, and served with poblano rice and refried beans — were Tex-Mex elevated to the loftiest heights.
Though my mind was sufficiently blown by the rest of the meal, the dessert caramel stuffed churros ($3.50) were a little lackluster. The doughnut-y sticks tasted sickly sweet and were a little too doughy. Even if they hadn’t been undercooked, I’m not sure we could have finished them.
The service was surprisingly formal, considering the environment. I’ll take too formal over too relaxed, or worse, chipper and hyper any day. We allowed our server to pick our meal, and he did an excellent job.
Salsa Fuego is one of few local restaurants that has created its own niche. It’s just a really inventive place where you can expect anything except pretense and can order knowing that everything coming out of that kitchen is attended with care. I could go back again and again and have a completely different experience each time. Genre? Let’s just say it’s whatever you want it to be and leave it at that.
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