The psychology of value is baffling and intriguing. From the sneaky dimple in your peanut butter jar eliminating precious ounces to the subtly smaller reworked contours of your soap bar, large brands are forever employing sleight of hand to cajole you into happily accepting higher prices.
The reason for such mental trickery is that price is such an emotive, not to mention personal, topic. We all know someone who blew an unfathomable wedge on something seemingly preposterous.
Which brings us neatly to Alamexo and the very first menu item — guacamole en molcajete ($10.95). With tax and a suitable tip, that’s a $14 handful of mashed avocado with hints of tomato, onion, chile and lime. Right now there will be folks with eyes bulging out of their sockets at the mere notion, while others will shrug and ask, “Is it any good?”
First, let’s step back and discuss Alamexo’s story. Alamexo is the latest restaurant from chef and owner Matt Lake, whose former restaurant, ZY, was transformed in a whirlwind makeover in late 2013. Out went the new American cuisine, and in came the upscale Mexican eatery approach — harking back to Lake’s former cooking in New York City.
The fast-tracked overhaul of the space is impressive. The restaurant has been given a fresh color palette. Chocolate browns, reds and oranges provide the canvas for a grown-up dining room, tastefully appointed with thematic decorations.
Back to that guacamole — which is prepared tableside and presented in molcajete bowls, suggestively placed on each table. Our waiter quickly crafted an undeniably enjoyable-tasting dip, spicy as requested. Frankly, though, mashing and seasoning an avocado is far from rocket science on the spectrum of complexity.
Whether you go with the guacamole or not, chips and an admirably garlicky salsa come complimentary at Alamexo and serve as fine nibbles.
Alamexo features a full bar with 10 set cocktails. Heading the lineup is the Vida rita ($10). Tequila, wine and beer follow. Given Utah’s burgeoning craft brew scene and Alamexo’s classier aspirations, I have to admit a mild disappointment in the beer selection; Modelo and Corona ($5) hardly set the pulse racing.
Several of the menu’s appetizers take cues from the guacamole. Tacos pescado ($12.95) featured pitch-perfect chunks of battered and fried halibut. While the toppings of mango, cilantro mojo and zesty onion worked well, each of the trio of mini tacos was little more than bite sized.
An order of the tamale de elote ($9.95) provided a single fresh corn tamale gussied up with small shrimp and a delectably light chipotle cream sauce. Flautas de pollo ($7.95) were perhaps a marginally better bang for the buck — two crispy chicken taquitos topped with a heap of cilantro, cotija cheese, onions and crema. I certainly couldn’t fault any on execution or flavor.
Entrées, while not exactly cheap, offer more value as each comes with cotija-topped black beans and garlicky rice.
Mahi mahi was the daily fresh fish special highlighted in a pescado veracruzana ($24) — a perfectly cooked and generous serving. The flaky white fish came slathered in salsa veracruzana — a mix of roasted tomatoes, sweet peppers, olives and capers. Finished with sweet plantains, it was a classy composition.
Another daily special I thoroughly enjoyed was the enchilada del día. Two enchiladas were stuffed with beautifully braised and then pulled short rib with the odd shrimp thrown in. They were covered in a stellar, tangy tomatillo sauce and clocked in at $23.
Budin al hongas y calabaz ($17.95) was the solitary vegetarian entrée and decent at that. The layered and baked “tortilla pie” is filled with wild mushrooms, squash and tomato. The finished assembly is covered in a mellow mole amarillo sauce and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds. Far and away, my favorite dish was the cochinita pibil ($18.95) tacos.
Tacos at Alamexo are served broken down into constituent parts. In the case of the cochinita pibil, four warmed and foil-wrapped tortillas come alongside a main plate featuring a skillet of pork, a criss-cross of plantains and a side salad of jicama and pineapple. The achiote and bitter orange marinated pork chunks were beautifully soft with teasing pieces of fat still remaining, hinting at a low and slow roasting process.
Meals end at Alamexo with complimentary churros, sugar coated, crisp spears with mushy interiors, pretty wonderful little things that inspired me on multiple visits to ask our server for details on the day’s desserts.
Spiced tres leches cake ($6) was a solid example of the milky treat, brought to life with cinnamon, dried fruit and rum-soaked pineapple. Better yet — and an example of where Alamexo really shines when it runs creatively wild — a chocolate tamale ($6). This dessert was a fun, sweet spin with chocolate masa, steamed, sliced open and excitedly doused with cream, chocolate sauce, caramel and candied pumpkin seeds. I’ll take three, please.
I guarantee that in reading this piece, most people will fall into two immediate camps. Group one will raise their pitchforks at the very idea of $20 tacos, while their equally furious opposition will retaliate with quips about quality cuisine. Both have valid points — and therein lies the rub: Pricing is such a polarizing and personal experience.
The cuisine at Alamexo can reach some stellar heights — and a dinner with appetizers, entrées, drinks and dessert compares favorably to finer downtown dining peers. Still, $14 guacamole might feel like a squirt of lime in the eye to some. Whether the hand-crafted cuisine at Alamexo represents fair value to you, well, that’s your call.
Stuart Melling also blogs at www.gastronomicslc.com.
Food • HHhj
Mood • HH
Service • HH
Noise • bb
Elevated Mexican cuisine is the latest work of chef and owner Matt Lake, replacing his former effort, ZY, in downtown Salt Lake City.
Location • 268 S. State St., Salt Lake City; 801-779-4747
Online • alamexo.com
Hours • Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $$$
Liquor • Full bar
Reservations • Yes
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • Yes
On-site parking • No
Credit cards • all major