Sitting on a corner of Hyde Park Square, at the former site of Cock & Bull, it’s easy to see that Mesa Loca has an absolute dream of a location. The indoor space is lovely, trimmed in white and coral, with an inviting bar. But the amenity that stands out most, particularly during this pandemic era, is the enormous outdoor patio. Even after cutting 40 percent of the tables inside, General Manager Kinjal Desai notes that Mesa Loca, with its expanded outdoor offerings, actually gained seating as it accommodated social distancing guidelines. During the beautiful sunny days in June when we ate there, the patio was totally full while the indoor bar was almost empty. Under colorful umbrellas, surrounded by people sipping margaritas and pink palomas, one could briefly forget the era of restrictions that we are all living through.
David Brooks, one of the owners of Mesa Loca, was also a minority owner of the Hyde Park Cock & Bull and decided to move the space in a more upscale direction after the previous establishment closed. Several people on the team loved Mexican food and culture, and Desai in particular was inspired by time he spent in Tulum, an ancient Mayan city on the southeast coast near Cancún. He wanted a restaurant that would focus on seafood, but also capture the special atmosphere of the area.
That atmosphere is at the heart of Mesa Loca’s appeal. If you’re tired of being in your house, you should get a drink on their patio. The premium margarita is a standout. (If you can afford the Billionaire Margarita, which costs an absurd $99, let the rest of us know how it is). I, for one, would vote for permanently replacing the traditional margarita salt rim with Mesa Loca’s innovation of tajín. The traditional Mexican spice blend of ground chiles and lime zest adds much more to the drink than salt ever did. Except for the hibiscus sangria (which is much too sweet), the drink offerings are consistently solid and the pours exceedingly generous. From the paloma to the roasted piña mula, a Mexican spin on a Moscow mule, with its ginger beer and chunk of roasted pineapple, there are few better places to have a drink outside on a warm summer evening.
The second part of Mesa Loca’s vision, though—the focus on Mexican seafood—has proved elusive. COVID-19 disruptions, Desai told me, have wreaked havoc with supply chains, making shipments of many kinds of seafood impossible. So dishes like the stuffed fish and Chilean sea bass are still waiting to enter the menu. Ingredients like pomegranate seeds, which the culinary team had planned to use to enliven dishes like the pollo frito, have been hard to source in quantity without raising prices even higher. Perhaps the restaurant will return to its original vision when things return to normal, or perhaps there is no normal anymore, and all of us need to begin the process of creative accommodation.
The seafood dishes still on the menu indicate what Mesa Loca could be. The tuna ceviche is nicely balanced: tart, with a little spicy creaminess, and a good crispy tostada. The Baja snapper goes well with a bright pile of grated radish and the mango habañero salsa, which for me was one of the highlights of the meal. With minced chunks of mango and a hint of fruity habañero heat, it is a prime example of how you can elevate Mexican food and make it worthy of a higher-than-ordinary price.
Elements at Mesa Loca tend to show up on several dishes, sometimes meshing successfully and sometimes not so much. That mango salsa—wonderful on the snapper, or just with tortilla chips—is a mistake when it appears on the beef tacos. Because the brisket is braised in cola, it’s already sugary. Topping it with the sweet mango takes the sweet too far. The result is syrupy and cloying. The salsa verde, though, is a wonderful counterpart to the milder carnitas, and the housemade white corn tacos are excellent. The tajín from the margarita shows up again on the elote, and to particularly wonderful effect on the yucca fries. One of Mesa Loca’s appealing qualities is its dramatic flair: The yucca fries come stacked on the plate like a late-stages game of Jenga, and their sour-and-spicy rub is quite delicious and striking against the bright starchy white of the fries.
One of my favorite dishes of the night was the Allen Brothers skirt steak, with a wonderfully bright and zingy chimichurri, a vivid green against the nicely roasted meat. But for an entrée price of $24, the dish didn’t quite offer enough. Desai mentioned that they had to raise the price because of the decrease in meat processing capacity during the crisis, but I would have loved to see Mesa Loca use more of the things that are still readily available. If the price of skirt steak goes up, why not include a side of vegetables, or really good pico de gallo, or some beans? Not the obligatory soupy refritos with white cheese, but something truly special? A pot of beans made with time, love, and a ham hock can be one of the most satisfying things in the world.
Still, there is plenty here that is good, and it has an unbeatable outdoor space. If you need to be outside and around people again and want to pretend for a few sips that you are on a beach near Cancún, this is the spot to do it.
Mesa Loca, 2645 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, (513) 321-6372