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Dining Fresco Mexican Eatery Share 1 By Spencer Caldwell

240 Captain Thomas Blvd., West Haven 203-691-8492 www.frescomexicaneatery.com

For serious Connecticut foodies, finding good Mexican fare can present a challenge. Sadly, Mexican ownership is no guarantee of quality or authenticity, with some purveyors cynically offering food that’s little or no improvement on standard Tex- Mex. Give the people what they want, I guess. And although non-Mexican ownership can be a cause for concern, it doesn’t guarantee the absence of quality or authenticity, either. Quality and authenticity depend on the standards set by restaurant ownership and the effort expended to uphold them. A wonderful surprise in West Haven, a town whose dining scene is on a definite upswing, is non-Mexican-owned Fresco, which means fresh, recent or just-made. I had planned to do a casual review of Fresco, but so pleased am I with my initial visit that I decide to pay it a second visit and run it instead as an upscale review. I’m confident Fresco can stand up to the higher level of scrutiny that switch entails. On atmosphere, Fresco could certainly qualify as a casual review. The interior is reminiscent of a Mexican villa, but neither formal nor fancy. A giant sun with a raised golden face greets one in the entry, the solar theme repeated throughout the restaurant. There are red tile floors, blue and orange tile counters and stucco-like walls. Tabletops are bare, but the disposition of the staff is as sunny as the setting. On affordability, Fresco could certainly qualify as casual with several treats priced under $3—and what a meal you could make of them! Fresco’s stated goal is to “take you … through the streets, alleys, plazas and markets of Mexico City,” where chef Joseph Collier lived for 14 months, and it succeeds wildly. (Collier and his wife Liz are partners in Fresco with Tim and Dawn Callahan and also own Savin Rock Roasting Company across the street.) Addictive parade peanuts ($2.50), freshly oven roasted and shelled, are tossed in a blend of house ground chilies, sea salt and lime. The Mexico City corn ($2.50) may be the best ear of corn you’ll ever have, the corn slowly roasted in its husk, brushed with guajillo chili butter, grilled over an open flame, and garnished with queso fresco and crema Mexicana. Hovering around the $3 mark are stunningly fresh street cart-style tacos, the chicken, pork loin and pork carnitas versions running $2.75, the steak and shrimp versions running $3.50. Those fillings are served atop four-inch griddled corn tortillas with diced onion, chopped cilantro and a choice of salsa verde, salsa rojo or salsa picante. The salsas exhibit the same kind of freshness found in the salsa that accompanies the obligatory corn chips served at the start of the meal. The meats are beautifully marinated, unlike some Mexican-owned joints that throw in plain meat. But the greatest secret is the soft tortillas, the dough freshly made twice daily by a charming lady from Tlaxcala, Mexico named Alejandra Espinosa (who also prepares all the desserts). This is lovingly prepared food. This Mexican eatery manages the rare trick of being rigorously authentic in key areas like its street food while exhibiting great creative flair in others. Its food is grounded in a thorough understanding of the cuisine, but in its imaginative combinations and international influences, it’s also Nuevo Mexican. It’s hard to imagine enjoying great Mexican fare like Fresco’s without an appropriate beverage, whether a pitcher of sangria ($24), tequila (Fresco offers flights for $8 and up) or a draft of Dos Equis Amber ($4.50), even if The Most Interesting Man in the World would never drink it out of a Miller Lite glass. Out of the bottle definitely, a coconut shell probably, a conch shell maybe, even his boot under exigent circumstances, but not a Miller Lite glass. We’re swept away by the great food, one pleasant surprise after the next. Guacamole ($7.95) may not be prepared tableside, but it’s a beautifully balanced combination of luscious avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, freshly squeezed lime juice and sea salt served with housemade tortilla chips. Imparting a slow spice burn, a chicken tortilla soup ($4.95) brims with shredded chicken, softening tortilla fragments and pungent fresh cilantro.