Red Mesa, St. Petersburg, Fla.

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There are a few common facts in the world of food, and one is that certain locations produce some foods better than others. Given their locations, it’s a pretty commonly accepted truth that the best Mexican food comes from four states: Arizona, California, Texas and Florida.

I saved the Sunshine State for last because that’s the area for this restaurant, located on the southern side of Tampa Bay, which divides Tampa and Hillsborough County from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. Much like Minneapolis in the Twin Cities and Dallas in the Metroplex, Tampa gets most of the attention, getting its name on the bay and by extension, in the name of all three of the area’s major sports teams, including baseball’s Rays, who have never played a home game in Tampa (Tropicana Field, their only home, is in St. Petersburg).

But much like St. Paul and Fort Worth, St. Petersburg is a sizable city in its own right, boasting the aforementioned Rays as well as being the fourth-largest city in the state of Florida. Because of my wonderful girlfriend Amy and my family having a long history with Tampa, I’ve made several visits to Tampa and enjoyed some wonderful places. But for the first time on this blog, the Sunshine City of St. Petersburg stands alone, and there’s a very good reason for that.

On my most recent trip down to see Amy, I decided to let her show me her city through her eyes, allowing her to plan almost everything for our four days together. I had already planned my trip the last time that I was in Tampa, and I wanted to make it clear that I trusted her to find the best things just as much as I trust myself. Because we celebrated her birthday while I was there, we left one window open for me to plan a meal anywhere I wanted, but I certainly wasn’t going to step on her toes in her city.

Notice the terminology there: in her city. As I mentioned before, Tampa Bay is more than just Tampa proper, but Amy’s city is Tampa, not any of the other cities that make up the Tampa Bay area. Conveniently, then, for her birthday, I chose a place that was neither in Tampa nor was similar to any of the restaurants she had chosen for our trip. My reasoning was simple: I wanted a place that I could surprise her with (check) that gave her a classy and different experience that she would absolutely love.

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That’s exactly what we found with Red Mesa, a Mexican restaurant located in the heart of St. Petersburg. On first glance, Red Mesa might seem to be nothing more than the typical Mexican place, but it isn’t even close to that description. Everything about Red Mesa is first-class, from the calm atmosphere to the aesthetically pleasing dining room, including the most important thing of all, the incredible meals themselves.

Where Red Mesa specializes is finding tastes that fit well together and combining them to form a Mexican experience that branches off into a new and different taste while staying true to its Mexican roots. In its description, Red Mesa claims itself to be a blending of Mexican and southwestern cuisine, with some things taken from places like Cuba, the Caribbean and Asia. Their aim is to create a true mix of multiple flavors, and they seem to be proud of being much different than the typical Mexican restaurant.

The difference begins with the free basket of chips and salsa that is brought to your table, normally a forgettable but expected part of having a Mexican meal. At Red Mesa, it’s a worthwhile experience. Rather than chips that are hardly store-quality, Red Mesa uses tortilla chips that are perfectly salted, lightly fried, thin enough for a perfect texture and offers both yellow and blue corn chips together to mix the taste. The salsa is also a very solid taste that complements the chips nicely.

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But it’s the main courses that really allow Red Mesa to shine. For an appetizer, Amy and I opted for a wild mushroom quesadilla, which isn’t something most Mexican places have even thought of on their menus. OK, in the interest of full disclosure, I looked at the menu about two months in advance and sold Amy on the quesadilla, because as we saw in Chicago, mushrooms strongly appeal to both of us.

I knew this would be the case again here because of what Red Mesa fits into this quesadilla. Along with the mushrooms, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, Monterey Jack and feta cheese are squeezed between the tortilla, then served with a balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing about that says typical quesadilla, and it certainly was anything but. The cheese melted perfectly, working with the vegetables to truly allow them to shine. I’d never thought feta could even be a possibility in a quesadilla or anything Mexican, but on this creation, it was simply wonderful.

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It wasn’t even the most amazing thing served to us there. For our main course, we both opted to go for enchiladas, which normally means beef, chicken or cheese, and that’s it. At Red Mesa, the enchilada options are as high-brow as you can think. Amy opted for crab and shrimp enchiladas soaked in a poblano cream sauce, while I couldn’t decide between them and opted for the enchilada trio platter, including one chicken, one crab and shrimp and one duck.

Yes, I said duck, marking only the second time I’ve ever eaten this bird. Given my experience with it, I’m probably going to be enjoying its dark meat on a far more regular basis. The duck was one of the best enchiladas ever, with the meat coming out tender, juicy, a little sweet and cooked to perfection.

It was even better when paired with the sauce covering the enchiladas. At most Mexican places, only a couple basic sauces are used to pair with the main dish, such as red sauce, green sauce or mole. At Red Mesa, the sauce for each dish is selected based on what flavors will go well when paired together. As a result, on the enchilada trio platter, none of the enchiladas have the same sauce. This means great tastes and great-looking meals. The food here might be some of the most beautiful I’ve seen.

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The chicken does come with salsa roja, which is the normal enchilada sauce, but it also includes cilantro-onion and queso fresco, and the chicken is of impeccable quality. The crab and shrimp, being lighter, goes with a poblano cream sauce, which adds a small bit of heat that is not enough to overwhelm the seafood, allowing you to taste everything the blue crab meat and gulf shrimp have to offer. Finally, the duck offers the most heat, but some sweetness as well. The duck is topped with a raspberry chipotle sauce, giving it an extra kick with a creamy sweetness that works with the natural flavor of the duck.

I honestly could not decide which of the three enchiladas was the best one, and neither could Amy, who tried a bit of the duck off my plate (this is a wonderful thing about dating, you get to sample more than just your meal). We ended up splitting our vote, with Amy preferring the duck and me going for the crab and shrimp. I think the reason was because Amy likes spicy foods, while I admittedly have a low tolerance for heat. Both were wonderful, but I liked the smooth taste of the crab, shrimp and poblano a little better.

Either way, I would have to say that this is right up there with Mi Nidito for the best Mexican I’ve ever had. The sides are also strong, with a mix of black beans and rice and another different sauce, this time chimmichurri. This is truly no typical Mexican experience, and that’s a beautiful thing. On my next visit, I’m probably going to have to try a seafood entree, as Red Mesa is well-known for their seafood as well, being in the Tampa Bay area and hand-cutting fresh seafood daily. If it’s anywhere near as good as the enchiladas, that’s something special.

As great as good Mexican restaurants are, Red Mesa has managed to take an excellent cuisine and make it even better by fusing it with tastes from Cuba and the Southwest, creating some creative and amazing dishes. This is totally worth the visit across the bay into Pinellas County.

Happy birthday, my love.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. There are separate menus for both times of the day.

Wait during my visit: None, because I called ahead and asked. The restaurant takes reservations at night, but if you make it there before 7 p.m., you likely will not need any reservations. After 7 p.m., however, it can get crowded.

Location: Red Mesa can be found at 4912 4th Street North in St. Petersburg, Fla. Be careful, as there is also a Red Mesa Cantina on 3rd Street South. I believe they are owned by the same people, but they are not the same thing.

Parking: Not ideal, as 4th Street is St. Petersburg’s main road and it gets pretty busy. The parking lot is not very big, and if you can’t find a spot, there’s no way to get back to the entrance, because it’s all angle parking. Be alert.

Cost: Substantial. Most entrees will run you about $15-20 a person, and an appetizer or alcohol (which also appears to be high-quality, as Amy seemed to enjoy her margarita) only pushes it higher. This is for a special occasion.

Seating arrangement: Booths and tables in a Southwest decor.

Website: Red Mesa

Specialty items: Creative Mexican and Southwest cuisine, enchiladas

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Red Mesa Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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About nighthawk2005

A hungry guy in the land of the Hawkeye discovers America's best restaurants for himself.

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