Restaurant News & Reviews

Festejos satisfies with authentic fare

If you're a fan of authentic Mexican food, you'll probably know that Festejos' location -- in a strip mall whose other tenants include a carneceria, a tortilleria, a taqueria and a Western wear shop -- is a promising sign, before you even set foot inside the restaurant. Daniel Flores and his family, who opened Festejos in December, also own the carneceria, which supplies the meats for the restaurant -- another promising sign.

But the bilingual menu, which offers an extensive selection of both authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex fare, makes it clear that Festejos caters to those who hail from both sides of the border. Even so, the sheer volume of the offering -- hundreds of listings, including a few that even aficionados might not recognize -- can be intimidating. Not to worry.

Start with the guacamole, which you'll find under the Botanas heading. When your waiter asks if you want a large or small order, go for the large. It's enough for four, really, but a large order only costs $6.99, and this guacamole is so addictive that a party of two won't have any trouble polishing it off. Trust me, I know from experience.

A few minutes after you've placed your order, your waiter will arrive bearing a large tray laden with four freshly cut ripe avocado halves and small bowls containing a rainbow assortment of pico de gallo, lime wedges, chopped fresh jalapeño, diced onions, cilantro and minced garlic. He'll then proceed to mix and mash these to your specifications in a molcajete, a rough stone mortar and pestle as big as half a soccer ball.

You won't lack for rewarding starter options. The earthy, chorizo-spiked charro bean dip won't let you down. Nor will taquitos, your choice of chicken or beef rolled into crunchy, authentically greasy fried tortilla shells and served with a zesty jalapeño dip. If you're feeling adventurous, flip to the supplemental seafood menu, which alone offers more than 50 options. Campechana, mixed seafood in a Mexican style cocktail sauce punctuated with jalapeños, onion and cilantro, makes a fine shareable starter. So do shrimp quesadilla, oysters on the half shell, and tostadas de seviche -- fish, shrimp, crab or a combination.

Feeling bolder now? Test your mettle, and your pain tolerance, with camarones al ajillo, which features large, peeled shrimp atop an incendiary green salsa, surrounded by alternating slices of cucumber and orange. Did I mention that the shrimp are raw? OK, our waiter described them as "like seviche, in lime juice." But if these shrimp ever saw lime juice, it wasn't for more than a few seconds. Still, if sashimi doesn't make you squeamish, you might just find the dish as delightfully refreshing as I did.

No thanks, you say, you prefer your seafood cooked? You'll find ample reward in shrimp brochetas, which serves up plump shellfish dusted with a mild spice blend and chargrilled on skewers. Or pescado ranchero entero: a whole, crisp-skinned tilapia under a vibrant tapestry of tomato, onion and bell pepper.

If you'd rather take the overland route to gastronomic satisfaction, Festejos' toothsome rendition of carne asada will get you there in a hurry.

So, for the most part, will carnitas Michoacan, though the occasional pork nugget may stray off the path of crisp-crusted succulence. And if you prefer the familiarity of the Tex-Mex trail, then Festejos' fajitas, chimichangas and combination plates offer pretty much the same scenery as countless other restaurants.

As for me, next time I saddle up for the ride to Clayton, I aim to explore new territory. Whatever I order, you can bet I'll start with the guacamole.