On a visit to Madison a couple of years ago, I was talking with one of my accounts about Mexican restaurants in the area. He was telling me of a place on the west side of Madison in a small strip mall by the name of La Mestiza that he thought was very good. I finally made it to La Mestiza during a recent visit up to Madison.
Mexican native Antonio Estrada moved to Chicago in 2000 from his home town of Aguascalientes with the hope to learn English while working in restaurants there. He got into information technology, but still wanted to run his own restaurant. He ended up moving to Madison in 2006 and got together with Armando Cristobal, a restaurant veteran (and formerly a chef at Frontera Grill in Chicago) and then a regional manager for Qdoba locations in and around Madison. The two opened up La Mestiza in 2007 in the Market Square shopping complex on Madison's west side. (see map)
The name La Mestiza comes from the term Mestizo which means a person or culture that is a mix of European (Spanish or Portuguese) and North American indigenous people. Estrada and Cristobal came from different parts of Mexico, and along with friends and family they came up with the diverse recipes for the foods served at the restaurant. All of the food they made was housemade and fresh, using only ingredients that were true to the homemade foods they had years before in Mexico.
Armando Cristobal left La Mestiza in 2010 to open up two other Mexican restaurants in the Madison area - Limon and Cilantro. Limon closed in 2011 and Cilantro closed in 2012. Antonio Estrada briefly had a La Mestiza location in downtown Madison, but the original one on Odana Road is the only one open at this time.
I pulled into the parking lot in front of La Mestiza. The lot was packed with cars and I found a single spot open a far bit away from the restaurant. I thought to myself, "Wow! This place must be popular! This lot is packed!" It turns out that the parking lot also is for a movie theater complex behind the building that houses La Mestiza. There were - maybe - 8 people in the place when I walked in.
A server greeted me and said that I could sit anywhere. I took a booth toward the front by the window. La Mestiza was not a large place - it had 9 or 10 booths with a couple of six-seat tables in the middle. Light fixtures with Edison light bulbs hung above each booth. She handed me a menu and not long afterward a young lady with a thick Spanish accent came over to greet me. I ordered a Margarita de Lujo - fresh squeezed lime juice and silver tequila.
After I got some fresh - and I mean fresh - tortilla chips along with a somewhat spicy red salsa and a creamy green tomatillo sauce, my young server came over with a shaker and a martini glass. She expertly shook the ingredients of my margarita and poured it into the glass. The margarita was excellent, as was the chips and the salsa - especially the green salsa.
To say the menu at La Mestiza is interesting is quite the understatement. They had four different types of chicken enchiladas, achiote marinated pork, chile rellenos stuffed with cheese, and Borrego en Chile Pasilla - lamb shoulder simmered with dark pasilla chile peppers.
I was in quite the quandary as what to get. My server had earlier told me what the special was that evening and I didn't know what it was. When I asked again what the special was again and she told me. "What's that," I asked quizzically.
In her heavy accent, she said, "Pork."
Then it hit me - she was telling me the special was carnitas. Only her accent didn't make it sound like it was carnitas. I felt stupid and told her that I'd have the carnitas dinner.
She brought it out and it looked simply delicious. There was a large portion of the slow-cooked shredded pork on the plate along with a scoop full of rice, some refried beans, fresh chopped cilantro and a dollop of guacamole. The only thing that she didn't bring were some tortilla shells - fresh made in the kitchen, I might add. I guess I could have asked for some, but there was so much pork on the plate that I still would have had pork left over even if I'd filled three tortillas.
Well, not only did it look delicious, it WAS delicious. The carnitas were moist, flavorful, tender, mouthwatering - everything that great carnitas are supposed to taste like. I concentrated on the carnitas primarily, but mixed some of the pork up with the rice, cilantro and guacamole. There was a lot of food on the plate and I couldn't finish it all.
The person who told me about La Mestiza was spot on with his assessment of the food served there. Everything - from the specialty margarita to the chips and excellent salsa to the carnitas with the rice, guacamole and cilantro - was fresh and full of flavor. Sometimes the best Mexican places are the little hole-in-the-wall joints that serve interesting foods. La Mestiza is just that kind of place. There's nothing "American-ized" about the Mexican food they serve there.