It was Saturday night, and my kids craved Mexican. I did, too, but somewhere other than our usual haunts for a change. There are plenty of excellent taco spots near us — Belmont’s La Victoria and Waltham’s Taqueria El Amigo spring to mind — but I wanted to try something different while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 87th time. Then I remembered that a new Mexican restaurant had opened at Arsenal Yards in Watertown after a slight pandemic-induced delay.
As befitting a large retail complex, Arsenal Yards is home to several chains: Chipotle; Shack Shack; Sweetgreen. But there are also local spots like Condesa, run by brothers Roberto and Ernesto Leon. Their parents, Juan and Esmeralda, were born in Jalisco; Juan later moved to Mexico City. Condesa is named for the neighborhood where he grew up. The restaurants — their third, with two in Rhode Island — are a homage to their parents’ heritage and recipes. Esmeralda, 62, even taste-tests some of them.
“Even here in Watertown, she came to the soft opening, and she tried one of the sauces. She was like, ‘Oh, you guys changed a little bit.’ So she went back, and we let her do her thing,” says Roberto Leon, who lives in East Greenwich, R.I.
The menu here is long, with many hard-to-find dishes.
“The simple fact is that we pride ourselves on our food. Our sauces, everything, are made from scratch. That’s not easy to do — deveining peppers and everything. It’s a big process,” Leon says. “We make traditional dishes that are hard to get elsewhere.”
One of these is chiles en nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef mixed with apples, pears, plantains, and raisins. It’s topped with a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. It’s delicious: sweet, savory, and spicy, like eating a pepper full of fall. In Mexico, it’s commonly eaten during September and October.
“People compete with their different versions. I happened to be in Mexico around that time a few years back, and I was like, ‘I wonder why nobody has ever tried this dish in the States!’ And, you know, we started poking around, we found a recipe from my aunt, and we added it to the menu,” he says.
Leon also recommends the steak tacos topped with onion and cilantro, a staple at taco stands in Mexico. Condesa’s have a twist.
“Ours come with an avocado sauce, which is delicious,” he says.
But the sleeper hit is incredibly simple and not particularly original: smooth, zingy Monterey Jack cheese dip that will disappear from the table immediately.
“You know, it’s funny. It’s one of those things that usually every Mexican restaurant has, but there’s nothing too Mexican about it … It’s something that’s very unique to restaurants over here in the States. But it’s crazy. People love it. I put it on anything, even fajitas sometimes,” Leon says gamely.
There’s also a lengthy margarita menu (cucumber, hibiscus, tamarind, watermelon), plus a $6.99 kids’ menu that includes burritos, enchiladas, and tacos, plus a side of rice, beans, fries, or fruit.
A Maynard location is in the works for 2023. But, first, Leon plans to take time off.
“This has been our biggest project to date here in Watertown, and it was a lot of stress. I feel like I aged 10 years,” he says.
The hard work was worth it.
Condesa, 80 Arsenal Yards Blvd., Watertown, 617-402-5315, www.condesarestaurant.com