Here's something I don't find myself saying very often: Fiesta! Modern Mexican Cuisine has really nice flatware. I've dined at Michelin-starred restaurants where the fork and knife haven't settled into my hands as heavily as they do at this five-month-old spot. You unroll your napkin expecting the usual scratched and dinged warehouse-supply flatware that you don't have to be Uri Geller to bend in half only to discover a gleaming Oneida knife and fork, pieces a less upstanding diner than yourself might consider purloining to fill the gaps in your personal collection.
When partners Roger Aguirre, Gerry Morano and John Signorino announced their plans for Fiesta! Modern Mexican Cuisine late last year, the restaurant's proposed name raised a few eyebrows. Was there a connection to Milagro Modern Mexican in Webster Groves?
There was not.
Well, then, would Fiesta! Modern Mexican Cuisine, as its name might suggest, be charting a path similar to Milagro's, viewing Mexican cuisine not as a cookie cutter of gringo-friendly dishes of questionable provenance — anyone know offhand who first dropped a burrito in the deep-fryer to create the chimichanga? — but as a living tradition of vast and, in the U.S., still largely unexplored scope?
It does not.
The "modern" in Fiesta's name has nothing to do with cuisine. It does have to do with that flatware, though. The restaurant eschews the sombrero-laden cantina look for a clean, contemporary design, with dark wood offsetting the pleasantly neutral yellow walls on which hang colorful Mexican (not "Mexican") artwork. Were it not for your view of a parking lot, you might convince yourself you weren't in a strip mall in west county — specifically, the Schnucks-anchored shopping plaza on Olive Boulevard in Chesterfield just before it turns into Clarkson Road.
Yet once you're seated inside this attractive space, your hefty silverware unrolled and at the ready, you might struggle to find anything on the lengthy menu to distinguish Fiesta from virtually any other Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurant: burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas and — ¡Sí, senor! — chimichangas.
Aguirre, previously the general manager of the now-shuttered Iggy's Mexican Cantina in Valley Park, is the partner who oversees Fiesta's kitchen, and by far the most interesting page on the menu is the one dedicated to "Chef Specials." Among the twenty entrées therein is a pretty good take on the taqueria classic tacos al pastor: four tacos with pork (lots of pork: my order brought maybe six tacos' worth of meat), pineapple and diced onion and cilantro. What elevates Fiesta's tacos al pastor is the salsa that accompanies them, a dusky red concoction with a sharp flavor and a fiendish heat.
Slideshow: Fiesta! Modern Mexican Cuisine photos
Neither the chile verde nor the chile colorado, two of the other specials, packs the punch of those tacos al pastor, but taken on its own merits, each is enjoyable. Chile verde brings pork or steak in a tangy, mild green-chile sauce; the colorado features your choice of steak or chicken in a red-chile sauce with mild heat and a nice blend of spices (a hint of cumin here, oregano there). Of all the specials I tried, only the carnitas disappointed. The hunks of pork, served under a tangle of sautéed onions, lacked the fatty succulence that makes true carnitas great. It should go without saying that refried beans and seasoned rice accompanied almost every dish I had here. Suffice to say you wouldn't miss either if it weren't there.
From the rest of the menu, I tried to pick dishes that might hint at the restaurant's personality. So from the enchiladas menu, I opted for the "Fiesta Enchiladas": three steak enchiladas in the restaurant's "special enchilada sauce." What makes this red sauce any different from the boring ranchero sauce that tops most enchiladas, I can't say. I fared better with the "Fiesta Soup": A large, shallow dish brimmed with skirt steak, strips of nopal cactus, bacon, beans and cilantro in a thin, meaty broth.
A go-to dish at several of my favorite restaurants in the Fiesta vein is chori pollo: grilled chicken topped with chorizo and a thick cap of melted Chihuahua cheese. Here the dish is served on a sizzling platter (à la fajitas), imbuing the poultry with an added depth of browned flavor. I could have done with less cheese, though; I could barely taste the spicy chorizo.
Of course, there's something to be said for the simple pleasures of a restaurant like Fiesta — namely, noshing on chips and dip while sipping a margarita. The top-shelf margarita here has a bit too much going on (Cointreau and Grand Marnier and sour mix and orange juice), but it whomps you upside the palate in a pleasant fashion. The house salsa has a solid balance of chile-pepper spice and roasted-vegetable sweetness. The guacamole is thick and unfussy. And, for a truly guilty pleasure, the queso dip is incredibly creamy with a hint of chile heat.
Embarrassed by your order of queso? Give it a stir with your Oneida fork. ¡Más classy, amigo
Slideshow: Fiesta! Modern Mexican Cuisine photos