DON’T YOU JUST LOVE IT when you get a nasty cold for Christmas? I got one this year, and while it hasn’t killed my appetite, it has dulled my senses a bit.
With a restaurant review deadline looming, we decided to postpone a road trip to our original destination and opt for someplace closer and with bold flavors that would cut through my cold-induced taste-bud haze.
Mexican should do the trick, we decided — specifically, the new Frontera Tacos & Tequila, which opened a couple of months ago on Nashua’s busy Amherst Street in a building that originally housed a Chili’s Grill & Bar.
Frontera is a regional chain based in New York with locations in Connecticut and western Massachusetts. From what we can tell, Nashua is its first New Hampshire location.
An interior overhaul converted the space from Chili’s southwestern style to a colorful Mexican decor with arches, carved wooden pillars, vivid tile work and streamers draping from the ceiling.
There’s a lot of seating in the main dining room — 12 four-place tables in the center and booths along three walls. One online commenter said the place seemed empty despite all the cars in the parking lot — we can see how the overabundance of tables could leave that impression.
Unlike many Mexican restaurants, Frontera has a fairly concise menu, divided into appetizers, enchiladas, soups and salads, quesadillas, entrees and tacos, most with a handful of choices. True to its name, the most selections are among tacos (11) and tequilas (60).
A basket of hot, freshly salted tortilla chips arrived at our table almost as soon as we sat down, along with a small bottle of a tasty, spicy tomato-juice based salsa. We dove in while studying the menu.
I don’t know enough about tequila to decide among five dozen choices, so I kept it simple and ordered a house margarita ($9), which tasted good, though it became quickly watered down by the ice cubes. Next time, we’d ask them to hold the ice.
We decided to order the Top Shelf Guacamole ($9), which was prepared tableside. It doesn’t get fresher than that, and as expected, it was excellent. (Dont’ forget to tip the preparer.)
The 11 taco choices include a couple of basics, but you’re not going to find short-rib Korean beef, bacon-wrapped shrimp, or Hawaiian-style chicken and sausage at your local fast-food taco joint.
I was torn between two seafood options, but finally decided on Emilio’s Calamari Tacos ($14). The two tacos, in soft corn tortillas, contained deep-fried calamari rings, caramelized onions, shredded cabbage, garlic crema and pico de gallo. The combination was fresh, light and crunchy, with a little spice and a little sweetness. I was very pleased with my choice.
Mrs. Gourmet was happy with her Carne Asada Chimichanga ($17), which came stuffed with shredded beef, corn, mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and queso fresco. The fried chimi was topped with a poblano crema sauce with guacamole and sour cream, which all seemed to blend together in a rich greenish gravy. The skirt steak was tender and the ingredients all married well, but Mrs. G was as stuffed as the chimi when she finished.
Both dishes came with Mexican rice, chipotle slaw, and a cup of beans. All three were noteworthy for their fresh, light flavors, but we were particularly impressed with the beans. While the menu offered a choice of black, refried or charro beans, we were never asked which we wanted. What we got was the charro beans — pinto beans in a fairly thin, meaty sauce cooked with bacon and onion. It was our first exposure to charro beans, and we loved them.
The service seemed like an odd combination of friendliness and cold efficiency. We had to rebuff our waiter twice before we were ready to place our orders. It being a quiet Sunday night, those orders were filled quickly — perhaps a little too quickly. The guacamole cart had barely cleared our tableside when our entrees were delivered. It seemed a bit of a rush, though we weren’t anywhere near closing time.
Pacing aside, we left Frontera saying we would definitely be back. The value factor is excellent, the food was good and we liked Frontera’s lighter, fusion-style spin on traditional Mexican restaurant fare.
I’m sure everything will taste even better once I shake this cold.