Just a short jog from Southpoint’s fast food-clogged arteries of Philips Highway and Butler Boulevard, a couple of New York transplants are cooking up a different recipe.
Michael Toussaint spent 23 years as a New York City firefighter and was a small partner in a high-end Tribeca eatery in the late ’90s. He and his wife, Amanda, opened Fresh-Mex & Co. Urban Grill & Cantina in early August at a former Corner Bakery Café off Bonneval Road.
As was its predecessor, Fresh-Mex & Co. is by all accounts fast-casual, but with a few upscale tricks that make you want to linger, not just grab and go. You order at your table, not a counter, and there’s a full liquor bar. The place has a modern yet rustic vibe with kitschy Mason jar light fixtures, brick and gray wood paneling. A small corner bar opens up to a patio by way of a garage door.
The Fresh-Mex menu, available for lunch and dinner seven day a week, glorifies fresh, healthy eating with entree salads, signature tacos and all-natural protein bowls called L.I.F.E. That’s short for Life Inspired Food for Energy. The concept is similar to a Pollo Tropical TropiChop bowl, but with higher-end protein options such as sliced ribeye steak, grilled shrimp and salmon. Still, it’s not hard to spot the less health-inspired options here, too, like deep-fried rolls and queso dip.
I brought the family by Fresh-Mex & Co. on a Sunday evening and found a handful of patrons and late NFL games wrapping up on the eatery’s four flat screens. This was Southpoint, after all, on a Sunday night. For a sit-down place I expected to see a host stand or at least a greeter at the door, but all we found was a long half-walled corridor to the kitchen (no doubt the order line in this restaurant’s former life) with the dining room to the left. After seating ourselves, Michael, the owner, soon bounded over with menus and a basket of chips and salsa.
The complimentary yellow-corn chips were crisp and salted well but not overly so, and the salsa was a pico de gallo-like mild red that wouldn’t offend a soul with its spice.
Our appetizer, the Tex-Mex Rolls ($6.90), had a bit more edge, with four deep-fried wonton wrapper slices filled with an enjoyably melty mix of shredded chicken and black bean and corn salsa. They gave a nice, spicy finish, not to mention the sidekick of tangy chipotle mayo.
My wife ordered a trio of Fresh-Mex’s signature tacos, which are individually priced to mix and match. She tried the barbacoa, or shredded beef ($3.50), carne asada, or sliced ribeye ($3.80) and chicken ($3.50) varieties, which were juicy and stuffed full of meat and flavor.
That would have been good enough for most diners, but my wife is gluten-intolerant and ordered hers with corn tortillas. Unbeknownst to us, they arrived dressed in gluten-filled flour tortillas. We only noticed after she’d finished one of the three. During one of his stop-bys, Michael’s face turned all shades of worry once he realized the error. He was more than gracious, remaking the meal and giving a generous discount for a future visit. It was a simple mistake, but I would have liked to see menu guidance for people with food allergies.
I opted for a L.I.F.E. bowl decked out with grilled shrimp ($5 more) and fajita-style peppers and onions (a $1 add-on). The bowl was as colorful as it was colossal with huge, white shrimp and tangles of seasoned green peppers and onions over cilantro-lime rice, pico de gallo, corn, black beans, shredded cheese and sour cream. It was a creamy, crunchy and flavorful blend.
For kids 10 and under, Fresh-Mex & Co. offers four entrees at $6 each, each served with an organic juice box. My daughter’s Kids Bowl featured grilled chicken and a tangle of blue-corn chip strips over rice, black beans and grilled corn. It was mild as a kid’s meal should be but tasty.
Fresh-Mex & Co. offers a pair of sweet treats. We went for the churros ($5) with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($2) and got a flower-like arrangement of 10 toasty-warm cinnamon pastry stick “petals” surrounding a vanilla middle. It was a thrill to watch my very focused 3-year-old pile-drive the churros into the melting ice cream.
Fresh-Mex & Co.’s full bar offers a spacious happy hour — 3 p.m. to close weekdays, and all-day Saturday and Sunday. Two-for-one specials apply to all bar creations, including signature cocktails and bottled and draft beer.
For a new eatery just finding its way, Fresh-Mex & Co. has promise with bold flavors in an attractive space. With some fine tuning in service, it’s a fresh, worthy dine.
For more of Jay’s dining experiences, visit his blog at www.jaymagee.com.