“You eat with your eyes first.” There’s a lot of truth to that old saying. It’s the reason chefs in fine dining restaurants go to such trouble with their plate presentations.
But let’s face it: Visual appeal is not the first thing most of us associate with Tex-Mex food. If you’re like me, the image that comes to mind is that study in shades of rice and refried beans known as the combination platter.
That said, in my most vivid memory of the food at Arandas, it’s the sense of sight that takes the lead. In my mental video clip, the waiter wheels a stainless steel cart up alongside our table. Then he proceeds to prepare tableside guacamole.
With a practiced hand, he spoons diced tomato, cilantro, onion and jalapeño into a large stone mortar and pestle known in Mexico as a molcajete. He adds a generous squeeze of lime. Finally, he neatly halves two avocados, scoops their flesh into the molcajete, and mashes them into a pastiche of pale green spangled with a confetti of deeper greens and red.
The guacamole delivers big-time to all the other senses as well: the atavistically satisfying sound of rough stone grinding on rough stone, the piquant pinch of jalapeño playing against the buttery backdrop of avocado, the citrus perfume of lime.
As it happens, that sublime guacamole was the first dish I had at Arandas, a family-run eatery that opened last October in Apex. It would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.
Not that every presentation is as memorable as the tableside guacamole. But little touches here and there give ample evidence of an attention to detail that sets Arandas apart from the Tex-Mex crowd.
There’s the single fat pink shrimp curled over the rim of a large goblet filled with coctel de camaron, proudly advertising the fact that the other eleven shrimp floating in that elixir of diced tomatoes, avocado, onion and tomato juice are just as big.
Order the enchiladas Bandera, and you’ll get a trio – one each of beef, chicken and cheese, topped with red, green and white sauces – in a presentation evocative of the Mexican flag. On a rectangular plate, no less.
The molcajete makes another appearance on the entree list, this time as a warm serving vessel for a carnivore’s bonanza of grilled rib-eye, chicken and shrimp piled atop a medley of sautéed pineapple, onion and bright poblano pepper strips. Served with a side of rice, beans and flour tortillas, the Molcajete (fittingly, that’s the name of the dish) is ample for sharing – especially if you’ve started your meal with the tableside guacamole. And why wouldn’t you?
Fetching presentations such as these add a welcome splash of color to the experience at Arandas, and they’re in keeping with an atmosphere that – while casual and family-friendly – is a shade more upscale than the Tex-Mex norm. But the menu never ventures far from its roots in a cuisine known for its rustically simple dishes.
Sometimes that simplicity can be deceptive, as in the grilled shrimp in a mango-chipotle sauce that turns out to be surprisingly light and beautifully balanced. Or carnitas: ragged chunks and shreds of pork that get their succulence from marinating in orange juice, beer and spices followed by a long, slow simmer.
Chicken in a fresh tomatillo sauce won’t win any Most Photogenic Dish awards, either. But like most Arandas dishes, it delivers in spades to the sensory triumvirate of taste, smell and texture that traditionally reign when it comes to our experience of food.
Most dishes, that is, but not all. Taqueria-style carne asada tacos tease the eye with their amply filled double-corn tortilla wrappers and their little side dishes filled with chopped onion and cilantro. Then, they let your taste buds down with dry, bland beef. Steak fajitas are a better way to go if you’re in a red meat mood.
One caveat to the fajitas: Sometimes the fajitas are no longer sizzling on their cast iron skillet by the time they arrive at the table. They’re still reasonably hot, mind you, but when you’ve ordered one of the few dishes in which the sense of sound plays a key, mouthwatering role, that lack of sizzle is a bit of a letdown.
I’m reluctant to point the finger at the wait staff, as they’re generally on top of things (not to mention unfailingly friendly). I can think of only one likely reason for the lapse: Chances are, your server is at another table, busy making tableside guacamole.