Dining review

Munchies takes a refreshing fresh approach to Mexican

CorrespondentApril 20, 2012 

  • More information Munchies Mexican Bar & Grill 10630-104 Durant Road, Raleigh 846-3456 www.munchiesnc.com Cuisine: Mexican Rating: *** Prices: $$ Atmosphere: casual and contemporary, with minimal decoration Noise level: moderate Service: friendly, laid-back Recommended: guacamole, soft tacos, chiles rellenos, carne asada, black beans, frijoles charros Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: not accepted Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

In a region where Tex-Mex options are dominated by cookie-cutter chains with “authentic” names like El Dorado and Las Palmas, Munchies’ moniker stands out like a baseball cap in a roomful of sombreros. It suggests a casual place, certainly, but also something a little fresher, maybe even a bit more contemporary than the chains.

The spare modern decor reinforces the feeling. A small stylized sculpture of a lizard clinging to a wall in one corner of the otherwise minimally decorated dining room is the closest thing you’ll find to a Mexican restaurant cliche. In fair weather, customers gravitate to tables under the twinkle lights of an awning-sheltered patio that’s sandwiched between the storefront and the parking lot of Falls River Shopping Center, where Munchies opened last summer.

A sleek curved bar at the back of the dining room gives rise to the hope that you might even score a margarita that doesn’t taste like lime Kool-Aid. You order one, and sure enough, you can actually taste the tequila. You sip as you nibble on chips and excellent cilantro-spangled salsa, and you open the menu.

Which, at first glance, doesn’t look all that different from the competition’s. Quesadillas, burritos, fajitas, combo platters and other familiar Tex-Mex favorites make up the overwhelming majority of the offering. A mere handful of items – seafood taco salad (your choice of tuna, tilapia or shrimp), a “Grumpy” steak burrito with chipotle and habanero sauce, and an appetizer offering of bacon cheese fries – might in a pinch qualify for the “contemporary” label.

Fresh entrees the rule

Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see that the shrimp in the ceviche de camaron are jumbos. There’s a splash of orange juice in Munchies’ pollo loco, a medley of grilled chicken breast and fresh vegetables topped with Monterey jack cheese. Handmade tamales include vegetarian versions with fillings of spinach and elote (corn kernels cut from the cob).

Turns out the emphasis at Munchies is not so much on “contemporary” as it is on “fresh.”

Chiles rellenos are made with fresh poblanos, filled with a savory magma of molten cheese and mashed potato, fried in an egg-white batter and blanketed with a mild homemade tomato sauce and crumbled cotija cheese.

The classic enchilada sauce is made in house, too. So are the poblano cheese sauce in creamy enchiladas (filling options include shredded or ground beef and juicy shredded chicken) and the tomatillo salsa in enchiladas verdes. Even the notoriously labor-intensive mole sauce is made from scratch.

Following a growing trend among Tex-Mex eateries, Munchies offers a modest selection of authentic taqueria-style soft tacos. Carne asada, al pastor and carnitas are all worthy, making a request for a taco dinner with one of each a winning bet. The fact that the tortillas are not house-made is a minor letdown, especially given the general emphasis on scratch cooking.

Disappointments are infrequent and minor across the board, for that matter. The medium shrimp in camarones a la diabla are merely OK, but the sauce delivers in spades on the fiery promise of its name. The grilled skirt steak in carne asada needed a touch of salt when I ordered it, but that was easily remedied and the dish was otherwise exemplary – right down to the grilled spring onion and jalapeño garnish.

Most entrees come with rice and your choice of refried or first-rate black beans. Frijoles charros, simmered with diced pork belly, are well worth the $1.50 surcharge.

Service is as friendly as the restaurant’s name, and as laid-back. Sometimes it’s too laid-back, as you’ll discover when you have to flag down a server for a drink refill or to remind him of a forgotten order of guacamole (which, by the way, is well worth the effort).

A veteran’s debut

Given the restaurant’s English name and against-the-grain style, it may come as a surprise to learn that Munchies is owned by a native Mexican veteran of the Tex-Mex chains. Juan Baez worked and partnered for some 15 years in local chains before setting out on his own to open Munchies. His efforts to raise the bar with his first solo venture are commendable, and surprisingly successful for a debut effort.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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