It never fails; just mention a Mexican restaurant, and there will be some naysayer ready to insist that the cuisine is not authentic. I was ready to head off all this inevitable criticism in defense of Holden’s Mexicali Fresh Mex Grill.
However, after some research, I learned that Mexicali cuisine could refer to a full spectrum of ethnic dishes; the city is nestled just south of California and has a cuisine that was heavily influenced by early Chinese immigrants. My advice? Approach Mexicali with an open mind.
Perhaps this might sum it up best: After finishing our meal, my dining companion opined, “It’s traditional Mexican whose spice level has been adjusted for Northeastern palates.” True enough, the food may not be very spicy, but the constant playlist of Mexican music certainly was. And to be fair, after we mentioned the lack of fire, Michelle, our server, offered condiments guaranteed to ratchet up the heat.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind to the beginning of this adventure.
Mexicali Fresh Mex is split into lounge and dining areas. Both are moderate in size but not cramped. Each of the stuccoed walls in the dining room has been washed with its own bright color. As soon as we sat down, we were presented with a basket of oven-warm tortilla chips and a bowl of tasty salsa containing chunks of fresh tomato. Fortunately, the menu is laminated, because salsa kept running off my chips onto its pages as I scanned the colorful food photos.
We started with the Baby Chimichangas appetizer. Another appetizer, Taquito Bites, made me wonder if the cuisine would be that pre-fab stuff for teenagers you see advertised on TV. But these chimichangas were hand-wrapped and stuffed with tender chicken and cheese. They came with cups of sour cream and guacamole and were slathered with orange and white Jack cheeses that were baked till molten and stretchy.
The menu billed them as “mini,” but beware: Size is relative, and this portion of four obviously is for sharing. These chimichangas were at least six large forkloads each. We enjoyed them with refreshing margaritas made with fresh lime juice.
Mexicali’s menu offered an intriguing twist on a poblano pepper favorite: Chiles en Nogada. They’re stuffed with meat and served with pecans and pomegranate. I just had to try them and was crestfallen when Michelle told me they were not available that evening.
So I fell back to the obvious alternative: Chiles Rellenos. Mexicali takes two large poblano peppers, fills them with mozzarella cheese and batters them. If these were deep fried, as is so often the case, it was with great skill because they were not greasy or oily. The large peppers had collapsed under a slathering of gooey Jack cheese, the batter coating was golden-brown and thick, and the pepper walls were cooked till soft and creamy.
Combo meals are a tradition at Mexican restaurants, popular because they allow diners to pick and choose from across the menu. My friend tried the three-option Combo Mexicali. His choices: pork enchilada, beef burrito and chicken taco.
As he sampled his way through the combo, he reported the pork to be tender and tasty, but the beef was the spiciest of all. I inherited half the chicken taco; the texture contrast of the crunchy shell and the super-tender chicken chunks was striking ~ some serious marinating had taken place.
Both entrees were generous portions served with rice and creamy-soft refried beans topped with melted cheese. The menu describes the rice simply as “white,” but that hardly does it justice; it was flecked with herbs.
We finished with Churros, crispy sticks of cakey dough extruded though some sort of nozzle that yields crusty ridges, perfect for dipping in warmed chocolate sauce and velvety dulce de leche sauce. Michelle called it butterscotch, but I thought it smoother and richer than your average butterscotch.
Mexicali Fresh Mex has carved out its own cuisine space that manages to satisfy the urge for Mexican cuisine but does it with, perhaps, a lighter touch than others. And if you insist upon spicy, just have them pass the habanero sauce when you’re seated.
Mexicali Fresh Mex Grill
700 Main St., Holden, MA
By Bernie Whitmore