"Cabo’s Mexican Grill a melting pot of Latin traditions

With blockbuster culinary trends, the cart is usually the creation of some clever cooks in one specific region, and the horse is generally a corporate mogul trying to sell that idea to the folks in Peoria and Poughkeepsie. Diners in one locale take a shining to, say, deep-dish pizza or steak and cheese sandwiches and, soon enough, the dish is available in just about every suburban strip mall, albeit it with some compromises in quality and authenticity. We weren’t a nation of hamburger eaters, after all, until a one-time ambulance driver named Ray Kroc happened upon a little shake-and-fries joint in San Bernardino, Calif., and took their product to the world. Rarely does it work the other way.

Curious, then, the case of Cabo’s Mexican Grill, which earlier this summer set up shop in the surprisingly pristine back half of a gas station at Ohio and East streets downtown. You might suspect it’s the first outlet of a new national franchise of “fresh” Mexican restaurants, known for their giant foil-wrapped flour tortilla burritos. But owners Alex Lopez and Moe Hanif will beg to differ. Theirs is a one-of-a-kind local enterprise that, while taking many cues from the chains that already populate the city, restores a lot of the Mexican influences that the chains have scrubbed away. Here, the cart is driving the horse.

The arrival of Cabo’s necessitates a bit of burrito history. For us in the Midwest, we may think “fresh” burritos with chunky, recognizable ingredients and absent heavy sauces derive directly from the boardroom, a culinary coinage aimed at making heavy, spicy south-of-the-border eats palatable to the mainstream. But this style of burrito has a provenance, though a somewhat disputed one, in the Mission District of San Francisco. Whether one taqueria owner put two tortillas together or whether the burritos were inspired by the ones migrant workers were eating in California’s Central Valley, they’ve been the favorite of Bay Area connoisseurs since at least the late ‘60s, with Web sites such as www.burritoeater.com devoted to their virtues.

But Cabo’s doesn’t merely nod to California, and spicing and preparation are as much akin to the “No habla Anglais” Latin eateries around the city’s fringes as they are to San Francisco-style taquerias. Though the counter servers will shake their heads “no” when you ask if something is spicy, most things are a notch or two hotter than any other fast-food Mexican places in town. Enchiladas are available, as are soups, mole burritos, pork tacos and quite piquant black and “rattlesnake” beans. Guacamole is chunky, fresh and loaded with cilantro.

Likewise, salsas and pica de gallo have a lot more character than at other similar joints. Burritos come topped with either a rich queso sauce or a roasted veggie “ranchero” sauce. And saucing is generous. You almost have to beg them not to put the sauces on. My request for “just a little” queso sauce got me a look that said, “You’re the first person in three months who hasn’t wanted the full treatment.” And a ton of queso sauce.

Décor and service exhibit quirks that let you know this is an independent restaurant. An unavoidable fountain in the middle of the dining room gushes forth and a bank of televisions on the ceiling blares the latest pop and Latin hits. The resulting cacophony makes it hard to carry on a lunchtime conversation. But for a gas station eatery, you could do a lot worse. Service is relatively swift for single orders, though some items seem to be out at peak dining times. It might be best to call in a larger order. All in all, the staff is generally quite accommodating and friendly, without the often catatonic stares of employees at chains.

While this is still fill-you-up-quick Mexican cuisine, expect most things to have more noticeable flavors and textures — and relatively mid-road prices. Nothing is above $6.50 save for a salad-soup combo. Highlights include especially smoky pork in the tacos and burritos, quite tasty chargrilled steak in quesadillas and taco salads and very juicy and temperate chicken in the chipotle chicken burrito.

Even hamburgers have a nice backyard barbecue flair to them, though they don’t seem hand-formed and are sometimes a tad overcooked. French fries are pretty average. But simple touches like corn salsa and a fruity mango salsa diverge nicely from expectations. In appealing to several different tastes and influences, Cabo’s offers a lot of the flavor and soul lost in corporate translation. Even the humble burrito reclaims its history.

Cabo’s Mexican Grill

132 N. East St.

Hours

Monday-Saturday:

11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars

Atmosphere: Three stars

Service: Three stars

Handicapped accessible, Nonsmoking.

Recommended dishes: steak quesadillas and salads, pork burritos and tacos, guacamole, salsas

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