But to reduce Mexican cuisine -- both classic and Tex-Mex varieties -- as simple peasant food is unfair. And inaccurate. The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America reminds me that the native foods of Mexico did more to influence Europe's culinary traditions than vice versa: "Mexico was the source for 'French' vanilla, 'Italian' tomatoes, and ... 'Swiss chocolate,'" its authors write. That said, I still say a burrito is just a burrito.
"But have you been to Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy?" asked my friend Barry, who rarely raves about restaurants. "It's very good and very beautiful. There's not a piñata, a neon Dos Equis sign or paper flower in the place."
That inspired me to hurry back to the Northland's faux Plaza, the Zona Rosa center, to experience the glamour of the new Abuelo's. The 14-year-old, Texas-based chain opened its first area restaurant last month in a grandiose stucco building that looks remarkably like many of the nouveau-riche "mansions" now under construction in the Northland's suburbs. You know, Ersatz-European.
"Food Embassy?" sputtered my friend Ned as we walked to the entrance. "Do you need a passport to get in?"
No, but diplomatic skills were required when it came to dealing with a frazzled hostess. "I'm waiting for my table seater to return," she explained (as if that made sense) before Ned and I were admitted into the Spanish-style atrium dining room, with all of its columns, carved-stone statues and murals. "Very 16th-century monastery," Ned said.
Abuelo's owner, James Young, has been quoted saying that he "didn't want to do border town Tex-Mex," though those dishes are on the menu (fajitas, enchiladas with chile con carne, chile rellenos). But they share space with more sophisticated dishes, such as poblano chiles stuffed with crabmeat, tilapia glazed in honey-lime sauce and baked in a corn husk, and superb bacon-wrapped tenderloin medallions.
The servers are dressed in black, the napkins are linen and the music (heavy on the Gypsy Kings) is kept comfortably muted. By local Mexican-dining standards, Abuelo's is more castillo than cantina -- even if the clientele had less fashion sense than the servers.