El Mesquite Grill
516 Gretna Blvd
Gretna, LA 70053
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
The New Orleans area has more Latin American restaurants now than ever, and with the added numbers there's much greater diversity and authenticity among the options. El Mesquite is cut from a different cloth, however. It has much more in common with the big, family-oriented Tex-Mex joints of yore than the current vogue for regional authenticity. But with its enormous menu, bargain pricing and friendly feel, it makes a good option when you want a simple and satisfying Mexican meal.
El Mesquite is a sprawling restaurant composed of a series of connected dining rooms. It was once the local seafood restaurant Visko's, and it still has the feel of a compound rather than one single restaurant. There's the huge main dining room, a breezeway dining room, a separate dining area in a lodge-like A-frame and a small, enclosed patio by a fountain. On Wednesday nights, the Latin band performs in the main dining room, adding a party atmosphere.
The emphasis is on speed and volume here, but the servers have always been courteous and correct. The sight of a waiter steaming out of the kitchen with an enormous tray of sizzling fajitas, piles of tortillas and margaritas by the gallon is impressive.
As soon as you're seated, a basket of hot, thin tortilla chips arrives along with a small plastic pitcher of the mild house salsa. It's free, and the servers will keep refreshing it if you ask. Given this and the entrée portions to come, appetizers are a bit superfluous. Still, the salty, cheesy tortilla soup is a good choice, while an order of ceviche gives a meal a lighter, fresher start. Some will certainly not be able to bypass the queso fundido, a gooey dip of cheese and sausage here called "chorizo fondeaux."
The menu seems enormous, but really much of it breaks down as familiar Tex-Mex standards in various combinations. In this manner, you can come in craving burritos, tacos, enchiladas and tostadas and not have to choose. They more or less taste the same, the idea being to convey meat, cheese and light, thin salsa with tortillas of various textures. The sizzling fajitas make a lively presentation, and provide some of the best eating as you combine their various sides and grilled onions, peppers and meats on still more tortillas. I wish there was more local fish on this menu, but as things stand now the shrimp a la Diablo is about the best bet for a seafood choice. Grilled with chipotle, this is also one of the hottest dishes on the menu. One good family-style option is the parrillada platter, which is a huge array of grilled steak, chicken, shrimp and chorizo. It comes with grilled vegetables, sides and a stack of tortillas for wrapping up your own tacos.
There's a full bar here, but it seems when most people go straight for the margaritas. There are a number of different grades available, and they're served frozen or on the rocks. Most striking are the different sizes available. The small is in fact quite adequate, while the larger size could fill a punch bowl. The bar also stocks the usual Mexican beers.
This being a family-oriented restaurant, the menu pitches its desserts directly at the kids. A scoop of ice cream may be the reward for a youngster who finishes his plate, while sopapillas are more likely what the adults would order. Then, however, there's the dessert nachos - fried tortillas topped with chocolate sauce, cinnamon and ice cream - that is too novel to ignore.
Bargain prices are a major part of the appeal here. Many of the very generously portioned combination plates are under $10 and lunch specials are even cheaper. To really scrimp, you can order items a la carte and make out with burritos or quesadillas for less than $4. Two people should expect to spend about $30 on dinner with drinks.
While a meal at El Mesquite is not likely to revolutionize your idea of Mexican cuisine, this friendly, value-oriented eatery is certainly a good place to consider for a casual feast, especially with kids in tow.