Standing sentry at the entrance to Yucatan Cantina, a pair of imposing stone statues of heads evocative of the famous moai of Easter Island make you wonder briefly whether you've come to the right place. Then you step inside and are greeted by a tile mosaic of an iguana just inside the door. Driftwood sculptures, a painting of a bullfighter, and iron scrollwork on faux adobe walls offer further reassurance that this is indeed a Mexican restaurant.
But precisely what kind of Mexican restaurant isn't clear. The restaurant's name - not to mention the absence of sombreros, donkeys and cactuses - suggests that Yucatan Cantina isn't your standard Tex-Mex eatery. But the menu is liberally sprinkled with nachos, fajitas, chimichangas and other familiar favorites.
And what are you to make of that dramatic spiraling glass chandelier suspended from a giant blue disk above the bar?
As it turns out, that last detail is the easiest to explain. The chandelier draws attention to one of Yucatan Cantina's main attractions: a tequila selection that, with 37 labels and counting, is among the best in the area. Many are featured in a diverse assortment of house specialty margaritas, while some - the Patron Gran Platinum, say, an añejo that will set you back $22 a shot - are more suitable for sipping.
Describing the food is more complicated. Owner Ahmed Ramadan (who owns a handful of area restaurants, including Vino in the same shopping center) has described the menu as "Yucatan inspired," aimed at showcasing the fresh tropical flavors of the region without being bound by authenticity.
On the menu, that translates to a diverse mix that includes ahi tuna with mango salsa, Veracruz-style tilapia and chipotle-tamarind glazed pork chop, interspersed with a healthy dose of familiarity in the form of burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and tacos on flour tortillas.
A tequila- and lime-marinated ceviche of grouper, shrimp and scallops is a refreshing take on a coastal classic. Earthier but just as rewarding are sopes, cups of soft masa with a filling of scratch-cooked pinto beans and chorizo, gently redolent of cinnamon.
Yucatan Cantina's guajillo and pasilla chile-spiked rendition of chicken tortilla soup is considerably thicker than traditional versions, but is nonetheless satisfying. Veracruz tilapia likewise takes liberties, though green olives and capers in the brick red sauce are a nod to the classic dish.
Chile-rubbed duck comes close to the mark, but the flavors of the rosy-centered slices of breast get overwhelmed by the hoisin-like sweetness of a pecan-prune mole sauce. Duck confit enchiladas are a winning alternative for those in a fowl mood.
So are chicken quesadillas. Generously filled with Chihuahua cheese and ancho-marinated chicken, and topped with a vibrant salsa of mango, tomato and onion, they're one of four quesadilla variations.
Those same four variations - chicken, steak, shrimp and vegetarian - are available in fajitas, burritos and chimichangas. Taco options include those four plus grilled tilapia and Buffalo shrimp.
In fact, the menu's focus has moved perceptibly northward since the restaurant's opening last summer. Not nearly as far as Buffalo, I hasten to add, but closer to the Texas border.
A number of Yucatan-inspired dishes on the opening menu have fallen by the wayside, and others have been modified in response to customer comments. Crab empanadas have been replaced by beef empanadas, and cornmeal-crusted calamari are now fried in a light batter instead.
The shrimp cocktail I ordered a few weeks after the restaurant opened was an almost ceviche-like presentation with flavors so light and citrusy you could almost feel the Cancun breeze. Recently an order of the same produced a much more tomatoey version, much like the coctel de cameron that's a staple in Tex-Mex restaurants.
That's not to say that Yucatan Cantina has become a Tex-Mex restaurant. The restaurant's namesake is still amply - if loosely - represented on the menu. General manager Scott Munro likes to use the term "next-Mex" to describe the restaurant's evolving contemporary take on Mexican fare.
Whether it is indeed the next big trend in Mexican cuisine remains to be seen, but it should be fun finding out.