Generally speaking, Mexican food north of the Rio Grande is so uniform that commodity traders could buy and sell enchiladas and quesadillas with the liquidity of pork bellies and frozen concentrated orange juice. (Imagine Gordon Gecko cornering the market on Anacott Steel while shorting futures contracts on winter chimichangas.)
With that in mind, we were delighted to discover that the long-awaited Alegria Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Green Hills outperforms the local market.
That's not to say that Alegria rewrites the book on the Mexican genre. There's still a predictable roster of quesadillas, fajitas, tacos and enchiladas. But the well-edited menu contains a few unfamiliar highlights — huachinango and crepas, among them — foretelling a fresh take on a familiar repertoire.
Owner George Haddad, whose restaurant résumé includes ownership of a local Cheeseburger Charley's and Jersey Mike's, has taken a go-slow approach to debuting his first indie eatery. After planning to launch in April, he pushed back to July. In fact, on our two visits, a month apart, servers were still referring to the "soft opening." Despite the fact that Haddad and chef Mariano Moreno still have not launched officially, food and service have risen to the level of a well-oiled, long-running operation. To be sure, Alegria's cuisine is more than just a bean-and-cheese-slathered sidekick to its strawberry-, jalapeno-, cilantro- and peach-infused margaritas.
Located at the opposite end of the refurbished strip mall that houses Kohana sushi restaurant, Alegria cuts a dazzling profile, with rich paint colors and vibrant artwork throughout sprawling zones of bar, dining room and patio. Custom-built booths and an opulent lighting scheme give quick indication that a lot of thought — and capital — has gone into the plan, which just might be a prototype for future Alegrias beyond Green Hills.
The refreshingly terse menu opens with the obvious staples — guacamole, queso and nachos. A fourth starter is a standout: red snapper ceviche. Served in an large tilted white bowl, like a lounge chair from the Jetsons' apartment, the hunks of tender fish in citrus are studded with onion, avocado and cilantro and served with buttery slivers of ripe avocado. It's a gorgeous dish, so refreshing and layered in textures and flavors that it's hard to believe you get so much. Such good things don't often come in such generous packages.
As for the more predictable guac, queso and nachos, it's almost easier to discuss them in terms of what they are not. They are not actually predictable. Guacamole arrives bejeweled with rubies of pomegranate seeds that pop across the tongue, adding a squirt of sweet juice to the fluffy curds of smashed avocado laced with cilantro and lime. Queso is not the insipid consistency of warm milk, as is too often the case, but rather a seductive thick pool of molten cheese.
Nachos were a rare — and mild — disappointment among our orders. Rather than a bountiful bed of chips loaded with toppings, Alegria Nachos arrived like a flat pizza of tortilla chips, soggy under the wet weight of ground beef and toppings. The real shame of such a misfire was that it failed to leverage Alegria's excellent house-made tortilla chips. With bottomless complementary bowls of fresh salsa and warm chips, there's little reason to pay up for the nachos.
We were also mildly disappointed by the tortilla soup, not because it was a thick, clumpy stew — a common complaint when it comes to tortilla soup — but because the tomato-tinged broth was dominated by carrot slices, giving it the overall appearance and taste of vegetable soup.
But overall, there was far more to celebrate than criticize. The quesadilla was an unusually plump cushion stuffed with cheese and a choice of chicken tinga or ground beef, and grilled to a freckled bronze. Fajitas arrived with sizzling spectacle and fresh accoutrements of guacamole, crema and pico de gallo, along with supple rounds of warm house-made flour tortillas, worthy of swaddling the accompanying slices of tender grilled steak (not those shriveled tresses of gray leather that so often pass for steak fajitas).
Expect the chef's specials to evolve as the soft opening morphs into business-as-usual, but also expect them to be colorful and fresh, well beyond the same-ol'-same-ol' of splattered rice and beans. We particularly enjoyed skirt steak chimichurri, topped with a thick layer of pureed herbs and served with garlic-chipotle mashed potatoes. Based on the success of the red snapper ceviche, we'll look forward to the chef's version of sautéed red snapper with tomatoes, garlic, olives, capers and peppers.
As if we needed further evidence that Alegria does not work from a standard industrial playbook of Tex-Mex favorites, we were bowled over by desserts. The names may have been predictable — flan and tres leches cake — but the executions were extraordinary. Tres leches cake was not cheap sponge soaked with sweet milk, but rather a dense crumb with a texture more akin to a truffle than sheet cake. And the flan ... oh, the flan. It's what happens when you bake brownies and custard together: Custard rises, creating a creamy layer over a pudding-soft base of chocolate cake. Drizzled with caramelized goat milk syrup and plated with whipped cream, it's an elegant indulgence that helps puts Alegria in Green Hills on the map of Mexican food in Nashville.
Alegria serves lunch and dinner daily, beginning at 11 a.m.