New Orleans is seeing a bumper crop of new Mexican restaurants. That shouldn’t be surprising. The basic taqueria format is well known and widely loved, it’s generally inexpensive and it’s compatible with social noshing, all of which correspond with bigger trends across the American dining scene today.
But there’s more to it than that. These new restaurants also align with a growing appreciation for the depth and diversity of Mexican food, and Del Fuego Taqueria is one new addition helping to show where this cooking can go once it’s detached from the Tex-Mex template.
Del Fuego’s chef and proprietor, David Wright, grew up in Napa Valley, a hotbed for Mexican cooking. He worked broadly across the New Orleans restaurant scene since moving here in 1998, from the kitchen of Commander’s Palace to Midway pizzeria, though it was the Mexican cuisine he missed from home that inspired his own first venture.
His taqueria opened in June inside what had been an obscure Magazine Street storefront. The space now unfolds from a covered patio lined with hanging plants that sway in the blessed fall breezes to a narrow dining room flanked by the small bar and busy, open kitchen and on out to a second, more secluded patio in back.
The menu can answer some baseline cravings with big, fat burritos ($8) and bubbly, brûléed cheese and chorizo dips ($6.50), though you can follow it deeper into the fundamentals of regional Mexican flavors.
For a taste of the latter, start with the mole ($16). Everyone knows this traditional Oaxacan stew is made with chocolate. But this one also vividly demonstrates how its parade of chilies, seeds and nuts, alternately roasted and grilled and all finely ground together, produce such a layered and fluid flavor, moving from spicy to darkly tart as it coats the palate. The vehicle here is a clutch of enchiladas, filled with small pieces of rich duck.
Thick-cut, St. Louis-style ribs ($16) arrive bundled in banana leaf, emitting aromatic wafts of steam. The pork within is soft and pretty fatty, thickly caked with earthy achiote. It gives up the bone with a shrug and pairs well with pickled red onions and creamy black beans that complete the dish like a Mexican barbecue platter.
Tortillas are made in house, an advantage which shows with the slight pull and chew to the flour version for burritos and the pliant freshness and toasty flavor for the palm-sized corn versions that enfold tacos ($12 for a three-taco plate with sides). The many fillings include pork carnitas, seared to a crusty edge; cactus, spicy-hot and a little mushy; strips of fish thickly encased with a puffy, golden-hued batter; and pulled strands of goat, rich, pleasantly chewy, slightly gamy and cut by the ripe, tart ring of guajillo chiles under a blaze of habanero salsa.
Other tortillas are fried to serve as chips on Del Fuego’s tables. Some batches are too oily and get a little gummy, but the perfect basket will arrive still warm and with a balance between durable and crisp that works well with the salsas (seven varieties) and is essential for tackling the chunky guacamole ($7). Order this as “the works” ($10) and the guacamole is dressed out with no fewer than eight add-ons, from fat wonks of chicharron to bright bursts of pomegranate seeds. It looks like a dip taken through a self-serve sundae bar and seems a little extreme. I’d recommend picking two or three toppings at first to try things out.
If tortillas are the bones of a Mexican menu, tequila is the lifeblood, and Del Fuego pumps out a three-page list for tastings (or just shots), for pint-sized margaritas and for heady, spicy concoctions like the Odd Couple, mixing tequila with bourbon, orange and a dash of chipotles.
Booze makes the leap to desserts with spiked popsicles (virgin versions also are served), though these aren’t as interesting as the composed dishes that pastry chef Erin Higgins has devised here. One example is her original spin on tres leches cake ($6) with a sharp slash of ginger, a toasted meringue cap and little cubes of macaroons strewn like coconut croutons over a scoop of plum semifreddo. As the new tide of taquerias stake out turf around town, this one will make you believe in Mexican desserts beyond the basics.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.