295 Alexander St.
Dinner Tue-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.; bar until 2 a.m.
Paul Brewer is a chef on the move. He has been since he started his career as a cook at a Cracker Barrel restaurant when he was 14 years old. In the intervening 21 years, he has worked in countless restaurants, most recently making a name for himself as the opening chef for Rochester's first gastropub, the Tap & Mallet. At some point the desire to have a place to call his own became overwhelming. When an opportunity emerged to buy into the restaurant Mex on Alexander Street -- where he had cooked several years before -- Chef Brewer decided it was time to strike out on his own.
Brewer has been at the helm of Mex for almost half a year now, slowly but surely ramping up his interpretation of Mexican food: a "traditional" twist on Tex-Mex that, he suggests, will take diners well beyond the realm of heaps of shredded lettuce and "burned and melted cheese" that characterize much of what passes for Mexican food in the area. It's a noble goal. Brewer likes to tinker with his food, updating familiar standbys and inventing new dishes that are fusions of other cuisines to keep diners on their toes. That said,Mex is well on its way to being a great Tex-Mex joint, and a solid standby in the East and Alexander neighborhood.
Mex has been reinvented several times. Cycling from restaurant to bar and back again has led to an interior that says cool, slightly offbeat lounge on the ground floor, and a perpetual Day of the Dead celebration in the velvet-curtained dining rooms on the second floor. This is not a Mexican restaurant for families: dark colored walls, drawn curtains, and memento mori paintings of grinning skeletons and leering devils on every wall make this a perfect place for a romantic dinner if you happen to be a Goth, but it scared the applesauce out of my 6-year-old dining companion.
He, and I, got over whatever reservations we had when the food started to arrive. Mex features a fairly comprehensive list of Mexican beers in bottles and a solid line-up of foreign and microbrews on draft. The bar also makes a mean margarita. Get your drinks quickly, because the chunky salsa that is served with festive red, black, and white tortilla chips has a fire that builds over time, making that first beer a welcome arrival.
Don't fill up on chips -- or at least wait to do so until the queso dip ($6) arrives. Brewer builds his queso on a bechamel base, incorporating pickled jalapenos, caramelized onions, roasted red pepper, and fresh tomato into the cheesy sauce. It's delicious, and the accompanying warm corn tortillas are a nice touch. You'll likely ask for more chips, and end up using them as spoons.
You could also opt for stuffed jalapenos ($7), but be very careful. Where most restaurants resort to pickled jalapenos, Brewer uses them fresh, chars them briefly, and then sends them lightly battered into the deep-fryer. Pickling jalapenos pulls their teeth a bit. Bite into one of these poppers and the pepper bites back -- hard. One pepper a person is all you are likely to need to get your chili fix.
A milder option would be Brewer's excellent tortilla soup ($4). Brewer, showing his love for all things pork, creates a rich, dark, and silky-smooth soup on a base of pork and chicken stock enriched with ground ancho peppers. Once you've scooped out the tortilla strips, you will find yourself picking up the bowl and drinking from it. No one who has tasted the soup will look at you askance for doing so.
Entrees show Brewer's willingness to work within the Tex-Mex genre while still trying to push the boundaries a bit (combination plates with two or three items, rice and beans run $9 and $12, respectively). His enchiladas, for instance, are stuffed with a delicious slow-roasted pulled pork, or spicy shredded beef or chicken -- all excellent choices. But, unlike standard Tex-Mex joints, where the sauce is ladled over the tortillas before they are put under the fire, Brewer does his enchiladas the Mexican way, dipping the tortillas in his ancho-based sauce and then stuffing them, which yields a drier but more intensely flavored dish.
His tacos are as good as you will get at any street taco stand. The primary difference is that Brewer's tacos are filled with startlingly good meat -- one recent Taco Tuesday special featured a briefly grilled mako shark ceviche, for instance.
Tofu isn't usually a big player in Tex-Mex food, which tends toward beans and meat, but Brewer offers tofu and seitan as fillings for his tacos, enchiladas, and burritos. His best use of soy protein, however, is his adobo tofu ($12). Brewer's homemade adobo incorporates chilis, cumin, and a bit of oregano, but he also adds in a fair amount of citrus juice and zest, giving his adobo a lighter, punchier flavor. Briefly deep-frying the tofu lends it a meatier texture before it's dressed and walked through a sautee pan. The result, served with a crunchy salsa cruda of mango and jicama, is an entirely satisfying entrée, but it would make an even better appetizer easily shared between three or four people.
Mex is not flawless, however, and when everything else is of such good quality, shortcomings stand out. On one visit, the refried beans were flavorful but badly oversalted, and the kitchen sent out a chili relleno -- a deep-fried stuffed poblano pepper -- that was so overbreaded that the pepper inside was virtually raw, the crust so thick and dense that I had difficulty cutting it with a steak knife ($12). On a subsequent visit, the breading was much lighter and delightfully crispy, the pepper tender and flavorful, a nice background for the tasty potato, corn, cheese, and rice filling within. When asked what had happened, Brewer explained that the kitchen is still "working out the kinks," and that one of his cooks had forgotten that the relleno batter needed to be both thinner and used at close to room temperature to ensure even cooking.