MESA- Modern Mexican on Fairfield's Black Rock Tpke

Sarah Green

[UPDATE: This restaurant has closed] There's a new muchacha in town, and her name is MESA! Bold as brass and situated in what has been, at least during my 10 years in Fairfield County, a most unlikely zone, this modern Mexican is worth its weight in oro. It is fair to say that my last choice when picking an ethnic food destination has always been Mexican. (Having been to Mexico many times, and having eaten the absolute freshest delicious food there, I have always found American-Mexican to be heavy, loaded with too much cheese and way too saucy.)  But the times they are a'changin and Mesa is making its way to the top of my destination list. Why you may ask? I'll tell you. 

We approached the site 2320 Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield, and I was sure we were headed for disaster. Mesa is located at the old PIZZERIA UNO spot, not a harbinger of good things to come. Yet even though the outer shell is dicey, and perhaps in spite of that fact, what awaits inside is well worth the trip. Don't get me wrong, restaurateur and master chef Rafael Palomino and his business partner (investor Steve Calzone) have done little to revamp the outer shell of the old generic pizzeria - perhaps fewer scenes of old Italia and more colorful papagayos- yet the quality of the food at MESA is outstanding. Here's what we ate:

We started with an order of GUACAMOLE, brought to the table in a heavy MOLCAJETE (mortar and pestle). Reminiscent of  ROSA MEXICANO in the city, this is appetizer is avocado ambrosia. Ripe, tender avocado - mixed, not mashed while you watch- with chunks of vine-ripe tomatoes and just enough cilantro, is the perfect accompaniment in which to dunk the crisp, warm corn chips. I could have had mine a touch spicier, but there is plenty of hot sauce available upon request for those that feel the need, the need for heat. We also ordered one of my all time favorites, the MESA CORN. Here, the cob is grilled to perfection, smothered in ANEJO CHEESE and sprinkled with PIQUIN CHILE. The juice of the sweet, crispy kernels, juxtaposed with the savory cheese and the spicy chile is sublime - dios mio!

Onward to the main courses.The CAMARONES en CHILE de ARBOL came next. In this dish, plump shrimp are sauteed with a potent Mexican chili tree pepper known as, you guessed it, "Chile de Arbol," and are served with MOROS and CRISTIANOS (basically, rice and beans) as well as sweet plantains. Again, it is the melding of these unusual flavors that brings this authentic dish to life. 

The favorite dish at this sitting was the COSTILLA BANDERA. "Costilla" means rib and these are the most delectable ribs north of the border. Short ribs are slowly basted in NEGRO MODELO BEER and served over rice. The beer caramelizes just a tad and that sweet and hoppy flavor penetrates deep into the meat. The ribs are crispy on top but the flesh is so tender, it falls off the bone. Served with an incredible SALSA VERDE (made with roasted tomatillos, chile peppers, lime juice, cilantro, and onion) this dish made it to numero uno on my list.

One of the runners up was the TAMALES COCHINITA PIBIL. In this "little desire" or appetizer, succulent pork is marinated in ACHIOTE and slowly baked in banana leaves. ACHIOTE is a spice derived from the seeds of the ACHIOTE tree and its flavor is often described as peppery with a hint of nutmeg. It is the perfect spice to accompany the savory pork and the aroma of the banana leaves which seeps through to the meat during cooking. Another contender was the FAJITA en MOLCAJETE. It arrived to the table, bubbling over the mortar like a volcano about to blow. We chose Pork (hanger steak and chicken are also options) and along with the CHIHUAHUA CHEESE and GRILLED CACTUS PADDLE, the meat seemed to be fighting its way its way out of bubbling heap. And we fought our way in! Served with scallions, a three-chili salsa, CHARRO BEANS, more guac and corn tortillas, these fajitas were DELICIOSO! And what really made them stand out was the CACTUS. It looked like green pepper but the taste resembled asparagus. Unusual and savory, this ain't your abuela's fajita.

It is not surprising, in fact, that French trained Chef Palimino and his crew know how to do restaurants right. He has written 5 cookbooks and Mesa is just one of his many eating haunts. Others include GREENWICH TAVERN in Greenwich, PACIFICO in New Haven and BLACK ROCK TAVERN right here on Black Rock Turnpike. He knows how to hire a talented wait staff - pleasant, helpful and VERY easy on the eyes! - and he knows how to cook. He has some fantastic ideas that make MESA even greater. He has created MEXICAN BENTO BOXES for kids which include simple Mexican fare or the Mac and Cheese/Chicken Nugget/Slider trifecta for stubborn eaters that might otherwise protest going to an ethnic spot. And there will be a phenomenal TAILGATE PICK-UP menu for Superbowl Sunday! Included here will be family style specials, tacos with "heat and serve" instructions, Caesar Salad, Mexican Tapenade and much more. 

MESA is Mexican done right. Check it out online at if you like. Better yet, get on your caballo and trot on over. No reservations necessary but call if you like - 203-372-2909. 

MESA 2320 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield 203-372-2909