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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Mexico Viejo
1760 Beaver Road, 277-1004
Sun. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Fri. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.

Bandit Burrito
5340 Merle Hay Road, Johnston, 254-9999
Daily 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Old Mexico, new Mexican

Two new restaurants in surprising locations have been buzzing lately. Both have Mexican-inspired menus but that’s where similarities end. Mexico Viejo (MV), on the triangular lot where Beaver Avenue meets 41st Street, is a nostalgia-themed mom and pop café with photos of early 20th century Mexico decorating a room that includes a full bar and a pair of high definition TVs. Bandit Burrito (BB) is an independent, cafeteria-style restaurant that has taken over a Johnston venue previously operated by a national chain. That is as rare in Johnston as a “Capitolino” restaurateur is in Des Moines. While most Mexican café owners in town come from Morelia, Jalisco and Aguascalientes, MV’s hails from Mexico City, the political and culinary capitol. The restaurant reflects his nostalgia for his hometown.

MV’s menu is broad and includes the basic Sonora cuisine that defined Mexican-American in mid 20th century, plus some dishes from the big city. Complimentary chips were homemade, and an accompanying salsa was made from red chilies. Bowls of homemade chile had a base of blended refried pinto beans, with red chilies and roughly ground beef. It was thick enough for a chip dip. Pico de gallo was homemade and fresh.

Both lunch specials ($4.29 - $6.79) and dinner combos ($6.99) offered exceptional value. The latter included eight different vegetarian dinners, too, though none were vegan. The most expensive item on the menu was a house special mixed fajitas platter ($12.49) that included generous servings of shrimp, marinated steak and ribs, with beans, rice, guacamole, salad and endless tortillas. One $4.29 lunch required two full plates to deliver: a chile relleno; a taco; refried beans and a guacamole salad. The relleno was made with a stem-on poblano, filled with white cheese. The taco was served in a crisp shell, fast food style, with ground beef, lettuce, pico de gallo and tomato. The guacamole was fresh.

Chicken fajitas were tender, a very rare thing, and served with nicely caramelized onions and sweet green peppers. Steaks came recommended as “Mexico City favorites” and were superb. A “ranchero” delivered a seared ribeye with good marbling, covered in red-hot sauce, caramelized vegetables, beans and rice, for $10.99. An order of “arranchera” brought a good marinated flank steak. Among the other big city favorites were huachinango (red snapper) and carnitas (roasted and fried pork tips). Desserts starred: Flan, freshly made each morning, brought rich custard with a lovely caramelized sugar topping; Chimicheese was a house concoction of cream cheese stuffed in grilled tortilla and topped with berry compote; MV’s fried ice cream was rolled in corn flakes, tightly wrapped in a flour tortilla and frozen for hours before being deep fried.

BB is the latest café modeled after Chipotle Grill, 2007’s number one restaurant chain in America (in per store sales growth). While BB doesn’t offer the same feel-good ingredients (free range meats, etc.) as Chipotle, it does offer more variety and much bigger servings for your money. On my visits, BB set a scale out so that customers could weigh their dinners. One of my burritos topped 24 ounces, for just $5.70! Design-your-own-dinners include choices of fresh made wrappers, starches, beans, meats, cheese, salsas, etc. I tried both, smoked pepper and spinach tortillas, plus several kinds of meats, both kinds of beans and both versions of rice. Chicken mole was moist, an amazing feat on a steam table. Pork and shredded beef had excellent flavor and contrasting textures. “Vegetarian sausage” was excellent. All salsas were freshly made and included: roasted chilies, tart tomatillos and a creative ginger peach.

Side dishes
Pastry master Ryan Binney will teach the legendary “tarte tatin” (apple upside down pie) Sunday, Sept. 21 at Sweet Binney’s. $50. Call 270-9128 for reservations… White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier told an Iowa State Historical Museum crowd that Bill Clinton was allergic to chocolate, flour and berries, yet wanted desserts with every meal. CV

Food Dude Reviews 2008 2007 Reviews
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Uncle Wendell's (1-17-08) Jesse's Embers (1-24-08)
Taste of Elegance (1-31-08) Old Country Buffet (2-7-08)
Baker’s Food & Fuel (2-14-08) Coffee (2-21-08)
Cool Basil (2-28-08) Sports Bars (3-06-08)
Daddy O’s Bodacious Foods (3-13-08) Maverick Grill (3-20-08)
Phat Chef’s (4-03-08) Shotz & Grill Cordoba (4-10-08)
Radish (4-17-08) Alba (4-24-08)
Billy Mack's (5-01-08) Jethro’s BBQ & Sports Bar (5-15-08)
Viva los Forasteros (5-22-08) Torocco! (5-29-08)
The King and I (6-05-08) Chipotle Mexican Grill (6-12-08)
Django (6-26-08) Swine (7-03-08)
Sbrocco (7-17-08) Zuzap (8-14-08)
Le Jardin (8-21-08) Samurai Sushi & Hibachi (8-28-08)
Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano (9-4-08) Old Castle (9-11-08)

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