Smooching the Blarney Stone is supposed to bring eloquence and good luck, a tradition that lent its name to Burlington’s Blarney Stone Irish Pub. But since that pub closed years ago, the space it used to occupy has been decidedly unlucky. Post-Blarney, 156 St. Paul Street has been home to a succession of ill-fated restaurants and lounges aimed at the black-turtleneck and ’tinis crowd. Opus, the Waiting Room and Plan B — a bar that inauspiciously shared its name with a morning-after pill — all burned out quickly.
Now that the space is occupied again, the question on eaters’ minds is: Can Meñores turn the curse around? More importantly, perhaps, can the new Mexican eatery fill a noticeable gap in Queen City cuisine?
One of Meñores’ two owners is Pat Finnigan, formerly of Finnigan’s Pub, who just might be able to restore that good old Irish luck. The other is Franke Salese Jr. of Junior’s Italian in Colchester. So far, it seems that everything Salese touches turns to oro. In 2007, he moved his flagship eatery into a brand-new, 1.6 million-dollar building; less than a year later he entered the Burlington market with a casual pizzeria, Junior’s Downtown.
Meñores bills itself as a “Mexican hotspot” with “creative offerings” that include both south-of-the-border dishes and “American classics.” Although the menu is still evolving, the current fare skews more Southwestern and Tex-Mex than authentic Mexican. There are fajitas and chimichangas — both U.S. inventions — but no tamales, mole sauce or pozole. Don’t even think about barbecued goat heads or menudo.
In short, if you’re expecting nuanced, regional Mexican fare at a Mexican restaurant, this one may disappoint. Overall, though, Meñores is a winner for its ambiance and its extensive list of tequilas, and it performs solidly for a new restaurant on food quality. On two visits, I found the service more erratic.
Walking into the restaurant, diners will immediately notice the bold and beautiful paint job. The walls are vibrant blue, purple, orange and green, and the tables — from the same artisan who made the lollipop-blue ones at Junior’s Italian — match them perfectly. Shimmery, sherbet-colored window treatments are a soft accent. When the comfy booths and ample bar seating fill up, around 7 p.m., it’s a bit loud, but the energy level is invigorating.
And a lively atmosphere makes sense for a resto with an unusually extensive tequila selection. Boasting 50 varieties, from lowly mixers to rare and expensive sippers, Meñores has plenty of choices for agave newbies and connoisseurs alike.
The former may need guidance, though. On my first visit, eager to try something different from the Cuervo shooters I sampled in college, I asked our server to recommend a straight-up tequila. She suggested I order a margarita. I repeated that I didn’t want any mixers, just some plain fermented agave juice, and she offered to get a recommendation from the bartender. I happily acquiesced. She returned with a margarita: “They made this by accident. You want it anyway?” Not wanting to waste it, I accepted. At the end of the night, they charged me only $6.50 for the shot I never got instead of $8.50 for the drink I didn’t want.
On my second visit, I realized that for tequila tutelage, you have to go to the source. My new server suggested I head up to the bar and chat with the bartender, who pointed out a beautiful bottle full of liquid the color of rosewater. The liquor burned, but wasn’t nearly as harsh as the other tequilas I’ve encountered. They couldn’t tell me what made it pink, but I still found it enchanting.
When I checked in with the bartender after my meal, he told me the staff is planning to print up an annotated menu of all Meñores’ tequilas, so patrons like me can select a special swig.
When diners sit down, baskets of warm, homemade chips and bowls of salsa fresca are whisked out immediately. The salsa is perfect for people who like their food chunky: If you’re a klutz like me, you may find the big pieces of tomato and onion prone to tumbling off chips in transit. Personally, I like my salsas chopped smaller, for better flavor melding. I’d also enjoy a tomatillo-based salsa verde option, which doesn’t currently appear on the menu.
The menu does offer a slew of additional dips, such as chile con queso and guacamole. The guac ($3.95) wasn’t consistent. On my first visit, it was a perfect pale green color, full of ripe avocados and lots of garlic. On my second, I found it a tad brown around the edges and lacking in garlicky flavor, but bits of tomato had appeared. Both times I needed to add salt and found myself wanting more of a refreshing lime-juice kick.
All the other apps were excellent. An order of “Smokey Red Chile Chicken Wings” ($8.95) was shatteringly crisp and flavorful without being truly spicy. Ditto for the shoestring “Ancho Fries” ($2.95). Plate-sized quesadillas ($8.95) are stuffed with melted cheese and your choice of fillings, including portabello ’shrooms, olives and shrimp. The roasted jalapeños, filled with goat cheese and bits of chorizo ($7.95), are a delicious grown-up version of “poppers.”
I wasn’t wild about the bowls of vegetarian jalapeño-cheddar soup and black-bean-and- chorizo soup (each $5.95). The former was thick enough to be a dip, but not deeply flavorful. The latter was semi-pureed, and the chorizo got lost in the mix. The portions were hearty, as they should be for the price.
Also sizable were two salads made with fresh, crisp greens and exciting toppings. I enjoyed the “Salad Carbon” ($10.95), which combines the grilled protein of your choice — I got juicy marinated shrimp — with romaine lettuce, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and cheese. Even better was the warm spinach version ($7.95) with corn, bacon and “frizzled” sweet potatoes. It went perfectly with the unusual orange-chipotle dressing.
Many Mexican restaurants offer combination plates galore, making the choice of an entrée a lengthy process. Meñores speeds things up with only seven available entrées, and no combos. Each dish comes with a choice of stuffings — meat eaters have all the usual options, while veggies can select beans, spinach or portabellos.
For me, one of the best Mexican treats is a fragrant corn tortilla, so I was disappointed to find that only one entrée — enchiladas — comes with them. The rest are made with flour wraps. My pork enchiladas were a good choice, with tender and toothsome chunks of meat. Unfortunately, the red sauce on top had the slight metallic tang of canned tomatoes.
Resigned to some flour-tortilla selections, I tried a generous tilapia taco ($11.95) with flaky, perfectly cooked fish and a creamy, tangy sauce; and a nondescript chicken burrito ($12.95). The “Sante Fe Sliders,” mini-burgers with a choice of toppings, are on my list for next time.
Red chile rice and pinto beans came with each entrée. The rice was nice, with a hint of spice, but the beans, although cooked properly, were a touch too salty.
Throughout my first dinner, service was glitchy and lacking in common sense — when our server took our order, she forgot to collect the menus; when she came back for them, she failed to fill up our water; when she topped off the water one last time, she neglected to leave the check. Though our table was jampacked, she didn’t ask if she could package our leftovers, but simply dropped off a few to-go containers. On my second visit, our server did offer to wrap things up, and she stayed on top of the details.
The owner and staff of Meñores have work to do. Some of the waitstaff need additional training, some of the food is inconsistent, and it would be great to see a few more Mexican meals on the menu. (There’s nothing wrong with Tex-Mex, but the restaurant’s concept needs clearer articulation.)
Still, the space is great, the food is fresh and homemade, and it shows. If anybody is taking bets on whether a restaurant can survive the curse of 156 St. Paul, I’ll put my money on Meñores.