On a Friday night at the Painted Burro in Davis Square, the volume is cranked to high: This one goes to 11. It’s not so much the music as the din of the crowd. To reach the bar, one must maneuver through an obstacle course made of people. Every rustic wood seat at every rustic wood table is taken.
Last year, upscale Mexican restaurants took over the city — you had your Tico and your Temazcal, your Lolita and your Papagayo. When another opened in the space formerly occupied by the well-loved Gargoyles, the question was: Do we really need more fancified tacos and tequila? In Somerville, yes, clearly. Often going out to eat is not about what your city has to offer, but what your neighborhood does.
And the Painted Burro offers a better version of this kind of food than most. It does this with a smaller, focused menu, and with the ministrations of chef-owner Joe Cassinelli (who also operates the nearby Pizzeria Posto) and executive chef Danny Bua Jr., both of whom have worked at Mistral, among other restaurants.
There are six entrees, but the bulk of the menu is devoted to snacks and tacos, the kind of food you want to eat when you’re out with friends for a few of the Painted Burro’s very good margaritas de la casa, made with Agavales tequila blanco, triple sec, and lime juice, best on the rocks with salt.
“Chingon” cucumbers are a refreshing, light pickle, tart, spicy and salty, with radish slivers and pickled grapes in the mix. (“Chingon” is basically Mexico’s “wicked awesome.”) Everyone’s favorite, Mexican street corn, appears here, the ears slathered in roasted garlic mayonnaise, cotija cheese, and a sprinkle of cayenne.
Guacamole is luxurious — so much “like buttah” one wonders if it might actually have butter blended into it. There is a version made with pork belly and roasted tomatoes, and another that includes roasted poblanos. The best, however, features nothing but avocado, cilantro, salt, and onion, so one can savor the creamy, rich fruit. The Painted Burro’s complementary tortilla chips, served with fresh salsa, arrive at the table warm, thick and salty. These same excellent chips come with the guacamole. And queso fundido mixes Oaxaca, Chihuahua, and Manchego cheeses into a stretchy mass to be scooped with corn tortillas; a version with roasted mushrooms is particularly good. Just eat it quickly, because its charms die as it cools.
Not all of the snacks are as fine. Olives flavored with orange, oregano, mezcal, and tiny round hot peppers called chiltepes (these are not capers, as they may appear to be) taste like any other olives. Chicharron, or pork rinds, have plenty of flavor, glazed in tamarind with Serrano chilies. But the texture is flabby and fatty, without enough crisp bits. And a chili relleno comes with mole that is complex but overly sweet.
Tacos are served two per plate, with fillings such as crisp fried fish and cabbage-jalapeno slaw, pork with pineapple salsa, and the ultimate, the chupacabra taco. Named for the mythical creature, this is a plate of tortillas topped with house-made chorizo, lamb neck barbacoa, pork, and steak with pickled cabbage. What sounds like overkill turns out to be quite tasty overkill, but don’t try to pick it up and eat it with your hands. For that matter, all of the tacos present difficulties as finger food. The tortillas split, and the fillings fall out.
The Painted Burro’s tacos are not priced like their taqueria counterparts — the chupacabra, for instance, is $21. A $3 fish taco at Dorado in Brookline is every bit as tasty as the $14 plate here. As much as tortillas and fillings, you are paying for atmosphere. The Painted Burro is a successful reinvention of Gargoyles — cream-colored paint, wood beams, folkloric murals featuring Day of the Dead skeletons and, yes, a burro, wearing a Mexican wrestling mask and sporting a horn. And, of course, here there is tequila, more than 80 kinds in all.
Entrees feature well-prepared meat and fish that tend to dominate the sides. A grilled pork chop is both juicy and tender, but the bean tamale with which it’s served is dense and bland. (Don’t miss, however, the excellent charro beans that are available as a side.) Street-cart chicken with plantains is a half-bird marinated in achiote, or annatto, and citrus. The dark meat is just right, the white meat somewhat dry. Grilled mahi mahi is prepared a la Veracruzana, with a tomato sauce described as spicy — a word that doesn’t always deliver much heat at the Painted Burro. But with poblano rice, this is a simple, savory, and pleasant dish. Tender short rib barbacoa is flavored subtly with red wine and cola, with creamy Oaxaca cheese grits on the side.
For dessert, silky flan is brightened with citrus, and ice cream comes in flavors such as corn (bland) and chili-chocolate, this last genuinely spicy and wonderful. It’s a better bet for chocolate lovers than a mocha mousse dominated by a cherry sauce reminiscent of cough syrup.
Service here can be awkward, but it’s plain that everyone is making an effort. If things start to fall apart, one of the capable managers steps in to smooth over the situation — making a forgotten order of guacamole materialize at no charge, for instance. (Although she can’t do anything about the empty container one guest discovers in his doggie bag.)
On a frantic Friday night, the Painted Burro’s food can suffer, the flavors not quite as balanced or bright. A rabbit leg dish (no longer on the menu) with root vegetables and an orange-jicama salad can be so tasteless one finds oneself feeling insulted on behalf of the bunny. The street-cart chicken that can be so good here is flabby and dull. On a comparatively mellow Tuesday, dishes are more apt to shine.
“Comparatively” is a key word here. When the Painted Burro isn’t loud, it’s raucous. Somerville wants tacos and tequila every night of the week. When it comes to upscale Mexican, it seems there is always room for more.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.