I admit, I'm a food nerd, and there are things that I miss because they aren't on the plate. So it's taken me more than a year to understand the Boston Waterfront's restaurant row as a wildly popular scene. I've reviewed each restaurant, wondering why the operators were investing so heavily in a half-deserted end of town where no one lives, and where long-promised development of a city-within-a-city the size of Back Bay has never materialized. The idea that people would drive in from distant suburbs because they wanted to spend an evening crowding into somewhat pricey restaurants with other people from the suburbs was not the kind of concept that sticks in the mind of a food nerd. I always have my nose in a menu, and the world goes by.
It finally hit me, sitting at Temazcal on a lovely Indian-summer evening, with all the doors open to the patio and waterfront view: it's a lot of fun to eat here, even if the food isn't authentic Mexican, or fusion con brio. Even better, Temazcal has some terrific food, even though it's jammed and doesn't take reservations. The latter should have been a wake-up call. The only restaurants that don't take reservations are really small, really great, and really arrogant — or in the North End, where if one line is too long, you can walk a few yards to the next place. The Waterfront has hit a North End–like level of popularity, where people are coming for the hot scene, and picking whatever restaurant seat they are willing to wait for.
Temazcal starts with very fresh tostadas and salsa. The salsa has good heat and better cilantro, and is good with one of the 75 tequilas, served straight or in cocktails. The "La Casita" ($11), for example, is what a margarita used to taste like, a slightly sour citric drink featuring elements of tequila aromatics and not hiding the smokiness. If tequila is "cactus whiskey" (although agave are not, strictly speaking, cactus), then I see the finest tequilas as being like single-malt scotch. I somewhat surprised the waitress by calling for an Ilegal reposado ($12), not just on the rocks, but with a splash of water. People in Mexico drink mescales straight, but what do they know about tasting scotch? Done my way, the somewhat aged mescal had citric and spicy flavors hovering over the burnt-rubber smokiness that comes with distilling the fermented product of long-roasted agave roots. Those raised on sweetened "margaritas" will want something like the "Besos" cocktail ($12), which combines tequila, agave nectar, St. Germain liqueur, and raspberries. On paper, sweetening tequila with agave nectar seems like a reinforcement of flavors, but in the glass the combination tastes like cough syrup to me.
Guacamole langosta ($18) is one example of the non-authentic Mexican food here, served in a tufa mortar, but with a banana leaf to keep the food out of contact with the implement. Nevertheless, it is crucially fresh, and thus the lean lobster and the fatty fruit combine for good eating. Ceviche ($16) is likewise revisionist, with rock shrimp, ahi tuna, and lobster replacing the conch of Yucatan (or the redfish of Peru), and the marinade is only mildly spicy. A pleasant surprise was the ensalada de tomate y aguacate con cebollas ($9) because of big chunks of heirloom-flavor yellow tomato.