Warmth in abundance
El Meson7850 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
It’s not like those creepy holograph busts at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, whose gaze can’t be escaped, but it’s damned difficult to get away from Piolin at El Meson Mexican Grill in Elk Grove. Piolin—Eddie Sotelo—is a 38-year-old Mexican radio personality. “Piolin,” a childhood nickname, is Spanish for the Tweety Bird of Looney Tunes fame. Piolin’s show runs in the mornings in Los Angeles. He is also the brother-in-law of El Meson’s owner, and photographs of him with everyone from President Barack Obama to Vicente Fernández, Mexico’s Frank Sinatra, are legion. There isn’t a table in the house, except those inside the glass front, that isn’t graced with Piolin’s smiling visage. But a plethora of Piolin is a small price to pay for large portions, plenty of choices, a smashing salsa bar and friendly, attentive service.
Despite being located in a strip mall and its Piolin infestation, El Meson is inviting. Colorful ceramic tile surrounds the largely open kitchen. Warm orangish walls, sturdy dark-wood chairs with straw seats, Mexican musicians warbling from the speakers and wrought-iron light fixtures combine to create a pleasant Mexican ambience without, to continue the riff, the place feeling like some Magic Kingdom attraction. An inviting place for lunch or dinner with colleagues, loved ones or a date.
A diner learns from the back of the menu that meson is “inn.” Luke 10:33-35 expresses the intent of the owner, which, he says, is to offer “a piece of human warmth.” In fairness to non-Luke-ophiles, the passage is Jesus’ famous Good Samaritan parable, in which a guy finds this poor schmuck robbed and badly beaten on the side of the road, tends to his wounds, takes him to an inn and gives el mesonero, the innkeeper, some dough to cover expenses, adding as he leaves that if it costs more, he’ll reimburse the innkeeper when he comes back through these parts next time.
Warmth is in abundance at El Meson, particularly at its salsa bar. The youthful and engaging waiter cautions about the creamy lime-green dip that, to the casual observer, appears to be runny guacamole. Que mala suerte, baby, if a hapless patron gobbles it up like avocado, because it’s jalapeños that fuel this sour cream sauce. And, unless the hefty wallop at the end is anticipated, a diner could go down for the count.
The fiery tomatillo kicks too but is a bit salty. The “medium” salsa has a mellow chipotle smokiness that endears. A cupful of the moderately zippy pico de gallo is a worthy complement to the pinto and black beans—or rice for that matter—which accompany the entrees. Chips are crisp and not greasy. Excellente!
As with most restaurants of any stripe, the best move is to start with whatever dishes have the joint’s name next to it. Like the abundant choices offered with El Meson’s specialty platter, the house special shrimp can be bathed in a lush tomato sauce that’s either a la diabla, spicy or al ajillo, very spicy. The waiter says the Fahrenheit of al ajillo is comparable to the jalapeño dip. Bring it on.
And do they ever. El Meson’s plates are colorful, 12-inch-by-12-inch squares with no footage left uncovered. Half the plate is a school of shrimp—not as fiery as advertised—the other half rice and beans with a pile of lettuce hairs crowned by a tomato crescent.
El Meson is way into letting a customer have it their way. The aforementioned specialty plates can be any one of these: asada, pastor, carnitas, mole de pollo, adobada, chile verde or chile colorado, accompanied by the usual suspects. And any of those can be shoehorned into soft or crispy tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, enchiladas, chile relleno or tamales on the house’s signature combination plates. Two items for $10.99, three for $12.99.
Is this Lalo’s with its unique menu of Distrito Federal fare? Nah. But pretty bueno nonetheless.