Last updated: Sun. Aug. 03, 2014 - 12:35 am EDT
It was a place my wife always wondered about along U.S. 24 in Huntington.
Though the script-lettered sign for Mecates sat back a ways off the road, it was visible to passers-by and it drew us in.
As soon as we sat down and looked at a menu, this place new to us seemed very familiar. Then it hit me: this menu was similar to Agaves Mexican Grill in Fort Wayne. And when I asked the hostess, she confirmed that Mecates was part of the same group.
One thing that was just as good there as it was in Fort Wayne was the black bean soup. Like its sister restaurants, the bowl at Mecates was rich and murky with a punch of green chile flavor and a hefty pile of tortilla crisps on top.
They must know their beans there, too, because the refried beans that accompanied my chicken fajita were fantastic. The fajita was nothing to brag about, but the beans had a wonderful richness and deep flavor most refried beans do not possess. I also loved that there were some whole beans mixed in to give it contrast.
The Burrito Al Carbon was easily the best entrée I enjoyed. Marked as a favorite on the menu, it was simple, and I think that was key. A flour tortilla was stuffed with either steak or chicken – I chose the former given the mediocrity of the chicken fajita – and covered in a rich, creamy white cheese sauce. The steak was tender and nicely grilled, and it was a belly-pleaser.
Another “favorite,” the carnitas platter, was not as filling. The pork was stringy and tender, but just a tad dry, and it took on the flavor of the onions that it was cooked with. With a little salsa in a corn tortilla, it was pretty good, but the portion size was rather small for a dish that is so traditionally hearty.
When it came to appetizers, the taquitos were well executed to be crisp and not oily. I had one with chicken and two with stewed beef, and neither had any zesty Mexican flair. The cheese sauce, which worked so well with the burrito, didn't work either as it had no spice.
The Quesadilla Suprema did work with the surprising addition of mushrooms being a real highlight. The nicely browned flour tortillas were also sandwiched around grilled chicken, tomatoes and plenty of gooey, chewy cheese.
My Blue Agave Margarita could have used an addition around the rim as it arrived sans salt or sugar. It was too bad, too, because it was tasty – not too sweet – just like the ones I have had at Agaves.
The complimentary chips and salsa that I had with that margarita also fell short. The salsa was OK, but the chips were too thick and hard, and they tasted as if they had been fried in oil that was past its prime.
Fernando's Enchiladas proved to be the worst entrée choice. It sounded promising with imitation crab – incorrectly labeled as just crab on the menu – and shrimp in three flour tortillas covered with melted white cheese and “special” sauce. That orange sauce had a profound peppery kick that was way too spicy for the delicate seafood. But it was the small shrimp with their dark black mud vein still intact that made the dish near repulsive.
Overall, I was not really repulsed by Mecates. The service was so-so; during one visit my server had no knowledge of the menu and was of little help.
The atmosphere was good – not overly kitschy Southwest and somewhat upscale for a Mexican eatery – just like Agaves.
But given that it was not as good as Agaves, I will probably pass next time I am heading through Huntington.
Restaurant: Mecates Mexican Grill
Address: 105 Frontage Road, Huntington
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Menu: Taquitos ($4.99), bean soup ($2.59), Burrito Al Carbon ($8.99), carnitas ($9.99), Quesadilla Suprema ($8.49), Fernando's Enchiladas ($9.49)
Rating breakdown: Food: 1 1/2 (3-star maximum), atmosphere: 1/2 (1-star maximum), service: 1/2 (1-star maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29), $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($%0 and up).
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net/dining;out. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.