Don’t be fooled. Just because Santana Rae’s is situated near a Methuen shopping plaza and has the outer appearance of a chain restaurant, it is anything but. In fact, it’s kind of a blast.
First of all, the cuisine is inspired by the Oaxaca region of Mexico, incorporating fresh ingredients. Second, it’s got a killer bar where creatively crafted tequila cocktails abound, featuring El Jimador – a primo Mexican tequila. And the variety of draft and bottled Mexican beers would blow your mind.
We love the restaurant’s logo: a giant red, winged heart, which hovers above the cobalt-blue central fireplace like a guardian angel of good Mexican cuisine. And there are mucho choices of seating including cozy booths, family tables, and comfy high-backed stools.
Our server brought warm and perfectly salted, thin tortilla chips to the table with a super-fresh homemade salsa that magically tasted of real garden tomatoes on a cold winter day.
And we put in an order for Santana’s Best Guacamole ($8), which was true to its name. The avocado dip was enhanced with fresh cilantro, onion, and lime — all of which went well with our Dos Equis Amber draft beer ($5) and cucumber-basil blue margaritas ($9).
That got us all ready for our entrees. We all split an order of agave-glazed baby back ribs ($16), which were served with fries and Napa slaw. These were excellent. Sweet (as promised by the agave) but savory to the max. And the slaw and fries were not throwaways. The sides were fresh and seasoned to perfectly complement the ribs.
Our favorite plate of the day was the shrimp tacos served with Santana rice and a choice of sofrito black beans or refried beans. We chose the latter. The three small corn tacos were plated beautifully with plump cilantro/lime-marinated shrimp and an amazing avocado crema topped with the Napa slaw. We could eat this all day, and the refried beans were creamy and earthy. Perfect.
Santana Rae’s offers a lot of local fish, including our choice of Atlantic Cod Veracruz ($16). The fish was crusted with plantains and served in a tomato broth with olives, capers, and pancetta over the Santana rice. It was good, but not the best dish we had. The flavors were a little on the busy side, but the fish was ocean-fresh.
We can’t go to a Mexican restaurant without trying the fajitas. We went for the “pick two” combo — in our case shrimp and chicken, although the choices included steak. The grilled red and green peppers were oozing with flavor that, when mixed with the protein — pico de gallo, shredded cheese, and crema — made it irresistible.
Many of the dessert choices on the menu were not necessarily Mexican, with the exception of tres leches flan ($6) and our choice of a hot cinnamon empanada tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled with a thick, amber caramel, topped with vanilla bean ice cream.
If you’re not a chain-restaurant fan, don’t be fooled by the exterior and location of Santana Rae’s. It’s an authentic and original Mexican restaurant that is worth a trip to Methuen in and of itself.Tom Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.