As New Orleans' restaurant scene continues to expand, it's interesting to see how restaurateurs, like prospectors, attempt to dig gold out of new territory to capture the attention of local diners.
The Taste Buds, partners Hans Limburg, Gary Darling and Greg Reggio, are placing a bet on the new Mexico-meets-South America eatery Mizado Cocina. The restaurant occupies a space that formerly housed Semolina, the pasta franchise the group controls along with Zea Rotisserie & Grill.
Mizado is nestled among several cemeteries, a country club and the Interstate 10 overpass at the intersection where City Park Avenue becomes Metairie Road, and the Taste Buds have banked on the location becoming a destination.
Mizado's space is clean, open and efficient, with stark white walls adorned with a few Day of the Dead-style paintings that give a nod to Mexico without being too kitschy. There's no telling the restaurant is located in New Orleans; at first glance, Mizado Cocina might as well be in Las Vegas, St. Louis or Dallas.
Mizado has a big but not dense menu that features a blend of traditional Mexican fare with Latin cuisine and some Japanese influences. A sampling of house salsas with tortilla strips turned up some original combinations, including a creamy version with smoked almonds, cashews and roasted garlic, classic green tomatillo salsa and a blazing hot habanero rendition with orange, carrots and red bell peppers.
Guacamole at Mizado is crafted tableside, and the result is serviceable though bland. Diners can add the accompanying salsa to improve the mix.
An exceptional option is the tamale de carne, made with beer-braised, grass-fed beef.
Mizado's tacos, all served unassembled with a side of soft corn tortillas, are a solid bet. Traditional versions come four per $13 order, and basic fillings include braised pork, chicken, chorizo or fried fish nuggets. Modern tacos "nuevo," with more fanciful fillings, are two for $10, and the Peking duck confit version is well worth the price.
The ceviche offerings are more like elaborate Pacific Rim presentations than traditional Peruvian fare. The restaurant "quickly marinates" the fish in citric acid, as opposed to letting it sit. Salmon with orange, lemon and grapefruit was bitter, but sliced tuna with citrus ponzu, melon, avocado and other toppings offered a lovely combination of flavors and textures. The simple grilled Gulf fish with spicy chimichurri was executed perfectly. And while the "mac and chorizo" proved overwhelmingly dense, fresh green beans with chilaca citrus butter was a worthy side.
Limburg, Darling and Reggio's love of tequila is evident on Mizado's cocktail menu and spirits list. I'm skeptical about fanciful margaritas, but the bartenders make excellent and efficient work of the bar's offerings. Notable margaritas include a version with carrot and lime juice (the vivid orange Wabbit Smash) and the Chipotle Sunrise, made with fresh raspberries. There is a cool, spicy rendition with cucumber and jalapenos.
Mizado is a slick, smartly calculated operation, down to the army of young staff sporting iPads and projecting a sort of corporate cheerfulness, even as the room gets louder and busier. Don't expect a leisurely meal, however: Courses arrive almost on top of one another. But overall, the food and cocktails are enjoyable and well-priced, and the service is friendly and attentive. It's not going to win awards for ingenuity, but the Taste Buds' approach to casual dining satisfies all the same.