CHOOSE YOUR POISON The tequila bar.
Come on, admit it. The best thing about some mediocre Mexican restaurants is their margaritas. But Don José Tequilas is not a mediocre Mexican restaurant. The place stands proudly amidst all the Italian competition on Atwells Avenue’s restaurant row, like a sixpack of Negro Modelo between meatballs and a bowl of spaghetti. Its predecessor started out in Olneyville and moved to Federal Hill in 2000, replacing a Japanese restaurant that stood like a bottle of sake, etc. There is serious dining competition on the hill, so contenders out of their league don’t last long. The place is still run by Jaime Gavira, who keeps the “Upscale Mexican Cuisine” standards high.
Although the mariachi band trumpeter on the logo sports a sombrero, neither the decor nor the menu is stereotypical. A lovely countryside mural surrounds large semicircular mirrors on one wall; there are potted plants and a realistic facsimile of an agave plant — from whence all tequila flows — that stands on a pedestal like an object of worship.
The best time to come is Sunday through Thursday, when $19.95 for a three-course dinner can bring you, say, tortilla soup with a rich tomato and guajillo chile broth; steamed pork; and tres leches cake or flan.
Ordering à la carte, you might choose mango salad with a raspberry vinaigrette ($8.95); going on to my favorite appetizer, shrimp ceviche ($11.95); and perhaps an entrée of molcajete Azteca ($22.95, or $34.95 for two), which is a mixed grill of sirloin and chicken breast, plus shrimp, chorizo, and grilled cactus. (If you can’t have too much of a good thing, there can’t be too many good things; say that in Spanish and pretend it’s a Mexican proverb giving you permission for that hearty pile.)
I came for lunch with a friend, and there were plenty of selections then too. Catering to varying appetites, all the appetizers and soups come in two sizes. I was tempted by the ceviche de camarones ($9.95), billed as a shrimp cocktail, but I decided to start with the siete mares ($8.95/$13.95). My supposedly small serving was bountiful, chock-full of mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid rings, in a delectable spicy-hot broth of guajillo, tinged red with tomato. The fat mussels particularly impressed me since dinky ones had been so disappointing the night before at another restaurant (don’t worry — it was way out of state).
We also shared a couple of appetizers. The brazo de reina ($5.95/$7.95), which on the dinner menu is marked as an unspecified award winner, is served colorfully on plantain leaves, and is a large tamale filled with spinach, egg, and ground pumpkin seeds, topped with an interesting tomato sauce. (More commonly, this is the name of a cake roll, but in the Yucatan it is this tasty dish of a similar shape.) Since we were in Rhode Island, we also had their calamari frito ($5.95/$8.95) which, like the tamale, came with pico de gallo (basically chopped tomatoes and onions); it was OK, tentacle-free, nicely enhanced by a chipotle dip.