Published October 10. 2013 4:00AM
It took me a while, growing up, to get beyond the sophistication of the Taco Bell menu and realize that there is quite a bit more to Mexican cuisine - and its cross-border pollinations - than choosing between a burrito and nachos.
In that spirit, it is profoundly recommended you sprint over to Groton and experience the conceptual glory of Mañana Cafe, which boasts a "modern Mexican" menu. Owned by the Martin and Genine Zavala family - the good folks who run Milagro in Stonington Borough and were behind the noble Zavala's experiment in New London - Mañana is located in a strip mall on Long Hill Road in Groton. But don't let that deter you.
Mañana is a lovely restaurant, hip and colorful and relaxed, with a small bar to the right as you walk in. The bar top and tables have a funky, lacquered fool's gold finish, and the place is a treasure trove of exotic tequilas and margaritas. There's also a nice selection of Mexican beers, including Pacifico and Dos Equis on tap.
The narrow dining room extends to the rear in a shotgun shack layout, with the partially open kitchen to the right. Sand-colored walls dominate with dark red and deep green accents, and while a lot of the decor is thematically typical of Mexican restaurants, the actual items have a stylish, "modern art" sort of construct.
It's a really comfortable restaurant and bar - made all the more welcoming by some amazing culinary ideas and accomplishments.
From appetizer land, an order of guacamole and chips ($7) is always a nice foundation on which to start and, by comparison with other Mexican restaurants, with which to compare and contrast.
Interestingly, the guac was a blended-smooth variety but clearly made on-site; there was none of the metallic taste you can get when folks use avocado paste. With cilantro and a citrus twang, it was a sprightly batch. The chips, just-outta-the-oven, were baked from flour tortillas instead of corn. Very nice.
Two items from the daily specials board were immediately attractive.
Pork Ribs a la Diabla ($17) was a stunningly beautiful creation. And while I associate "a la Diabla" with a spicy red sauce, there was a crema fresca component to this rendition. How the whole dish worked: it started with a half-rack of meaty, lean pork ribs that seem to have been lightly rubbed and then braised to fork-tender wonder. They were then coated in a thick sauce that, yes, had the tang and heat required of something called "Diabla," but with a velvet texture that danced gorgeously with the pork. You could just lightly paw the meat with the fork tines and it would shred right off. Run it through that sauce and ... Wow!
Seared Tuna Tacos with Mango Salsa ($16) also impressed mightily. The generous tuna portions had a rare, seared quality, and the mango salsa comprised chunks of the soft but tart fruit - all lovingly wrapped in flour tortillas.
Selections from the regular menu were as impressive.
Bacaloa a Veracruzana ($19) featured a small brick of cod drizzled with tomatoes, olives, capers and pepperocini. Again, the melange of flavors worked well with the main cod, which was very fresh, if perhaps slightly under-seasoned.
Enchiladas al Horno ($14.50) is a magical possibility for vegetarians ready for something beyond the cheese/bean "old reliable." Layers of warm corn tortillas were filled with layers of spinach, onions and mushrooms - all fresh - and topped with lots of cheese, which was bubbling when it hit the table, and a light but piquant mist of tomato sauce. On top: diced red onions and a crema fresca.
It was far more a casserole than a typical enchilada, and the savory sum of the ingredients became a fine entity unto itself.
Most entrees come with nicely flavorful rice and black beans.
From the dessert board we tried the molten chocolate lava cake ($5), which was a lovely presentation and sufficiently choco-centric.
A word about the hand-crafted margaritas. There seemed to be a few vats of pre-made margs at the bar, so the "hand-crafted" part might have been an earlier-in-the-day/avoid-dinner-rush strategy.
Nonetheless, our version had a pleasing taste and strength and, with the shaker providing a goblet-and-a-half's worth, was a reasonable pour at $9. A hibiscus margarita (also $9.50) was a compelling idea; it had a mellow sweet/sour component not typically associated with margs and is definitely to be ordered again.