Most people will likely gravitate directly to the patio at Mesa 21. They might not even enter through the front door, instead walking through the short gateway just behind the valet stand (more on the valet later).
The waterfront seating with a view of Lake Ivanhoe has long been the draw of this space, ever since the building was erected, circa 2004, and Gargi’s moved into it from its closet-sized restaurant across the street. Sitting on the patio at sunset helped one overlook shortfalls with food and service.
Gargi’s is gone, the owners retired, and Mesa 21 has moved in. While some now grouse that the view across the lake is marred by the ongoing construction related to the I-4 updates — what’s it been now, 15 years? — they probably assume the patio is the place to be.
Not necessarily. I experienced both over two visits to Mesa 21, and while the patio is certainly nice and I appreciate the waterfront in a downtown location, I found the new decor of the interior to be quite pleasant. And if you dine while it’s still light out, you have a better than OK view of the lake through the large windows. And air conditioning.
And there’s no reason to adjust the evaluation of the food and service. Both are as recommendable as the view, cranes and mounds of dirt notwithstanding.
On a first visit, my companion and I started with an order of guacamole, which was delightfully chunky, as God intended guacamole to be. Fresh-fried tortilla chips assured us our daily recommended allotment of grease was meant, but good guac is always better with a greasy chip.
I liked my friend’s Chili Relleno, the plump poblano stuffed with mild-flavored panela cheese and slathered with a tomato sauce. As with most dishes, it was served with sides of rice and beans. (I found the beans to be too pureed and runny, the rice bland.)
I liked my Carnitas, too, though it was certainly different than any I’d had before. Instead of a usual pork butt cut, Mesa’s is fashioned out of a pork shank, braised a la osso buco. It was doused with salsa verde and accompanied by onions and warm tortillas. The meat was sufficiently tender and juicy and fell off easily for wrapping in the tortillas.
At a lunch visit, I selected the trio of tacos, or Mesa 21 Real Tacos, as they’re touted on the menu. They were about as real as they get, though let’s be honest, authentic tacos aren’t that difficult, many restaurants just try to make it look that way.
I specifically chose the Pastor as one of my choices and indeed it included bits of pineapple with the pork — the pineapple is a necessary ingredient of a pastor taco. With lettuce, a lime wedge, a small amount of pico de gallo and some fresh leaves of cilantro, they were quite good. Get me some better beans and rice and I’ll be happy.
Besides the benefit of cooler air, the inside dining room also offers the comfort of padded chairs and a decor of brick walls in a chevron pattern with simple but colorful Mexican artwork.
As with any newcomer, Mesa 21 finds itself with packed houses. As with a downtown newcomer, that means a dearth of parking spaces. Valet parking is all but required. On my first visit when I tried to avail of it, the valet parking attendant demanded to know whether I had a reservation. When I told him I did not, he said that the wait would be two hours. Fine, I told him, figuring that I could find a place to sit at the bar in less time. Still, he did his best to wave me away. You gave me the warning, young man, and I’ve made my choice. Now take my car. No, wait, don’t take my car. Oh crap, he took my car; I may never see it again.
All ended well. I found a seat at the patio bar easily, was finished in no time, and drove home in an unscathed vehicle.
Mesa 21 is at 1414 N. Orange Ave., Orlando. (There’s another location in Clermont.) It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-930-8000.