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EatDrinkShopCook: Take-out & sit-down, Mexican fare heats up dining scene

Things are starting to heat up around town. Not the weather, but definitely the restaurant scene. For a while it seemed like every new eatery was either pizza, Italian or burgers. But now things are getting spicier with the addition of several new Mexican restaurants. And here's the great part: they run the gamut of pricing and atmosphere, from cheap take-out to sit-down for special occasions.

Mexican restaurants certainly aren't new to the area. Westport's Viva Zapata has been in business since 1969. The menu includes six different types of nachos, favorites like tacos and burritos, and Mexican specialties such as chicken mole and carne asada. Viva Zapata is also popular for happy hour, where margaritas are served in 16-ounce Ball jars.

In Fairfield, the Mexican mainstay is Senor Salsa, located in the Post Road traffic circle by McDonald's. The menu consists mainly of tacos, burritos, fajitas and quesadillas, with the average price being about $6. In addition to the usual pork, chicken and steak offerings, they also have fish and shrimp on the menu. The salsa bar, with its wide variety of freshly-made sauces, is a big draw. Senor Salsa is popular with families and Fairfield University students, so parking can be difficult at times, but the fresh menu and affordable prices keep people coming back.

More recently, several other fast food-style Mexican places have opened in Fairfield. Chipotle, located near Whole Foods in the Kings Crossing shopping center in Fairfield, has a basic menu that you then customize yourself. You choose whether you want a burrito, a bowl, tacos or salad, and then choose from an array of fillings, such as carnitas, chicken, steak, beans, vegetables and condiments. In a similar vein, Qdoba on Black Rock Turnpike also allows customers to construct their own meal. And in case that wasn't enough, just across the street, Moe's Southwest Grill is pretty much the same deal. Perhaps those entrenched in the world of fast-food Mexican can tell the subtle differences between the three restaurants, but to the Average Jose, they're all pretty similar. One interesting point of note: the websites for all three restaurants offer nutritional calculators, so you can see the value of what you're eating.

For a more upscale experience (and the added benefit of margaritas and sangria), there are several choices in the area.

Bodega Taco Bar kicked things off when they opened in 2011. The tiny restaurant was one of the first places to offer individual tacos in gourmet variations, like Crunchy Kale & Mushroom and Crispy Korean Chicken. Two years later, Bar Taco opened in Westport on the Saugatuck River with similarly themed upscale tacos. Here you can get tortillas filled with falafel, wild boar or duck, in addition to the more mainstream chicken or fish. The way you order at Bar Taco is similar to some sushi bars: You fill out a form and your wait person simply takes it from you. That way, you can always order more tacos if you find you're still hungry. Just save room for the fun mini ice cream cones at the end of the meal. Both Bodega and Bar Taco have a fun, loud, celebratory atmosphere to them, which appeals to all different types of people, from families out for an early dinner to young professionals looking for a fun bar scene.

For a festive and filling meal, Rio Bravo is one of the newer hot spots in Fairfield. It's in one of those "cursed locations," most recently occupied by Fairfield Metro Cafe and before that, Iso's. Fortunately, the owner Edgar Brambila has done everything right to transform the place into a fun, authentic Mexican restaurant. I think it's safe to say that this restaurant will be here for a good long time.

On a recent visit to Rio Bravo, the server Francisco Gamboa explained the menu. There are tacos, and quesadillas and enchiladas, or for the indecisive, a combo platter with one of each. And even then, it's hard to choose. "The choices are infinite on a combo," said Brambila. There are tempura fish tacos, calamari tacos, and even turkey club tacos. One of the most popular variations is the Marco Polo, which consists of bacon- wrapped shrimp, tortillas covered with melted Jack cheese, caramelized onions, mix cabbage, pico de gallo and roasted chipotle crema. Entrees include specialties like salmon with roasted pineapple, blackened tilapia, and the popular Camarones 1800, which is jumbo shrimp sauteed with mushrooms , pecans and olive oil, served on a bed of tequila 1800 cilantro crema sauce. Almost all the dishes come with three sides: rice, citrus chipotle slaw and a choice of refried beans, black beans or authentic Charro beans, made with bacon and spices. (I highly recommend the Charro beans.)

A recent trend in Mexican restaurants has been to charge for chips and salsa, but at Rio Bravo they are complimentary. They're served with a traditional salsa, but there is also a salsa bar where you can choose from mango, roasted tomato, avocado and creamy chipotle sauces. "We like to give very generous portions," said Brambila.

And lastly, another location that's seen high turnover lately is now home to Geronimo Tequila Bar and Southwest Grill, an offshoot of a popular establishment in downtown New Haven. "The biggest thing for us is that we're not a Mexican restaurant," said owner Tim Scott. In fact, the menu is influenced by the cuisine of Sante Fe, N.M. So what does that mean, exactly? There are tacos, quesadillas and burritos on the menu like Buffalo Brisket Tamales and Elk Chile.

"One of our more unique dishes is the Hatch Chile Stew," said Scott. "It's braised pork, hatch chiles and posole. It represents what the Southwest is about." In addition to the unique menu, they also offer over 400 different tequilas. "We have the largest collection of tequila outside of California," said Scott. "We like to tell people, `Let us be your tequila story.'"

THE SCOOP

For take-out Mexican

Senor Salsa, 580 Post Road, Fairfield Read Full Article 

203-256-8800; www.senorsalsact.com

Chipotle, 340 Grasmere Ave, Fairfield

203-255-7665; www.chipotle.com

Qdoba, 2222 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield

203-333-9574; www.qdoba.com

Moe's Southwest Grill, 2267 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield

203-873-0776; www.moes.com

For festive tacos:

Bodega, 1700 Post Road, Fairfield

203-292-9590; www.bodegatacobar.com

Bar Taco, 20 Wilton Road, Westport

203-222-8226; www.bartaco.com

For authentic, sit-down dining:

Viva Zapata, 530 Riverside Ave., Westport

203-227-8226; www.vivazapata.com

Rio Bravo, 770 Commerce Drive, Fairfield

475-282-4316; www.riobravotacosandtequila.com

Geronimo, 2070 Post Road, Fairfield

203-955-1643; www.geronimobarandgrill.com

More Information

THE SCOOP
For take-out Mexican
Senor Salsa, 580 Post Road, Fairfield
203-256-8800; www.senorsalsact.com
Chipotle, 340 Grasmere Ave, Fairfield
203-255-7665; www.chipotle.com
Qdoba, 2222 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield
203-333-9574; www.qdoba.com
Moe's Southwest Grill, 2267 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield
203-873-0776; www.moes.com

For festive tacos:
Bodega, 1700 Post Road, Fairfield
203-292-9590; www.bodegatacobar.com
Bar Taco, 20 Wilton Road, Westport
203-222-8226; www.bartaco.com

For authentic, sit-down dining:
Viva Zapata, 530 Riverside Ave., Westport
203-227-8226; www.vivazapata.com
Rio Bravo, 770 Commerce Drive, Fairfield
475-282-4316; www.riobravotacosandtequila.com
Geronimo, 2070 Post Road, Fairfield
203-955-1643; www.geronimobarandgrill.com
Patti Woods

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