THERE’S NO ESCAPING the fact that Don Ramon looks like an old Wendy’s restaurant. That’s what it was built as, after all. But aside from the exterior architecture, there’s nothing fast-food, or even fast-casual, about this very good, full-service Mexican restaurant.
Mrs. Gourmet and I headed to Don Ramon on a recent Saturday. It was another snap decision for us, one we had to make after we discovered that the small Nashua microbrewery we were going to visit didn’t offer enough food to justify a review.
As we pulled up to Don Ramon, we immediately recognized what the place used to be. When we saw cars in the drive-thru lane, we were a little worried about what we were getting ourselves into. But as we drove around the building, Mrs. G noticed that there was no one in any of those cars; the drive-thru lane was only being used for parking.
There’s a nice pergola-covered patio for outside dining in front, with a tall, multi-layered fountain that gives an air of old Mexico. The entrance is on the side, and opens to the hostess station. The main dining room is to the left, in the front of the building. It’s nicely decorated in yellows and browns, with modern pendant lights above the booths around the perimeter and colorful pennants hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. There might be a bar and more seating in separate rooms toward the back, but we were greeted and seated so quickly we didn’t really have a chance to scope it out.
The menu is fairly typical of a Mexican restaurant, with the standard Tex-Mex choices like enchiladas, burritos, fajitas and a long list of house specials. But while the menu isn’t unusual, we thought the execution was above average.
When we got seated, a waitress quickly arrived with a basket of fresh, warm tortilla chips and a small carafe of salsa — a fresh puree of tomato, onion, and a surprising hot pepper kick.
For starters, we picked a large order of guacamole ($8.95), on the off chance that the entrees we would choose didn’t come with any. (They did.) While it wasn’t made tableside, the guac was fresh, mildly spicy, with big chunks of tomato and chopped onion. With more fresh chips, we dug right in, but there was more than enough in the large order to last through our meal.
There’s plenty of seafood on the menu, from grilled salmon to whole tilapia, with a range of styles and spice levels. I haven’t ordered fajitas in a long time, so I chose Seafood Fajitas ($17.99).
As expected, the combination of shrimp, scallops and white fish (probably tilapia), onions and green, yellow and red peppers arrived on a sizzling metal platter, accompanied by soft tortillas and a plate of shredded lettuce, sour cream, rice, refried beans, more guacmole and pico di gallo.
What I wasn’t expecting was the slightly salty, medium-heat spice mix that coated the seafood. The dry coating made the dish less saucy than some fajitas we’ve had, but everything was perfectly cooked, with the natural juices of the seafood and the peppers providing all the moisture necessary. I’m not a big fan of white fish, but it was the surprise star in this excellent fajita combo.
Mrs. G ordered fried beef chimichangas ($11.99), a typical Tex-Mex dish that was better than typical thanks to the care applied in the kitchen. The ground beef was moist and perfectly spiced, rolled in two flour tortillas that were lightly fried — they almost seemed pan fried, though the menu says they are deep fried. This approach made the dish lighter than many versions, which can sit like lead for a few hours after a Mexican dinner.
There was a hint of sweetness in the beef that we couldn’t quite identify — cinnamon? cocoa? allspice? Whatever it was, it added another dimension to an already tasty dish. A week or so later, we decided to investigate further, and ordered the same dish as takeout. This time, though the filling was chopped beef instead of ground, with more of a chile-themed seasoning. Still very good, but very different.
Adding to the overall refreshing lightness of both dishes was the rice, which was fluffy and gently spiced, and the refried beans, which were smooth and creamy.
Light (relatively speaking) as they may have been, we ended up boxing up a fair portion of both dishes to bring home. We’re attributing that to our enthusiastic attack on the guacamole we ordered at the outset. (Next time, we might think about ordering a small portion.)
Service was prompt and friendly, and the value factor was good — our tab, with one margarita, came to just over $50.
In Don Ramon, once again our last-minute panic to find a restaurant turned up a winner. If it weren’t so stressful, we’d think about taking that approach every time.