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Restaurant Reviews

Sexi Mexi

This place is already dated," my significant other announced as she settled into her hand-hewn wooden chair at MoQuila and lifted artisanal glassware to lips. "In ten years, we'll look back at this and say, "My God, that was so '05."

All the same, she looked terrific in the downlighting from those imported, one-of-a-kind metallic lanterns. The spanking new "Mex-chic" MoQuila -- still barely a fortnight old -- is right in the middle of its time. And there's no mystery why. The guy pulling the magic levers behind these elegantly coutured waitrons and selecting the Eurotrance booming from recessed speakers is Karl Alterman. Just call him Señor Zeitgeist: Alterman is one of a particular breed of restaurateur -- he puts together "unique concepts," finds a partner (he's been aligned with big names like Dennis Max and John Belleme), and opens local eateries so suffused with personality and calculated eccentricities that you wish they were human so you could date them. Some of Alterman's offspring succeed, like the wildly popular Prezzo (now closed) and Gigi's Tavern (still open under new ownership); others die embarrassing deaths. Red Bowl, a noodle palace where diners slurped everything from bowls, apparently bowled nobody over. And Digs dug its own grave right through the floor of Lake Worth's Gulfstream Hotel in under a year. No matter -- you get the feeling Alterman gathers no moss. He wants to do it and move on. MoQuila's been open two weeks, and his eye is already wandering -- he's getting ready to debut Deep Blue Seafood, scheduled to open next door to MoQuila in December.

I have nothing against being bamboozled by restaurant glitz as long as the food is good, and I'm happy to report that at MoQuila, it mostly is. And with a menu of 200 different tequilas, MoQuila's right up there with the big L.A. tequila bars, and Alterman's once again zipping along the razor edge of a trend.

Here's the official backstory: Alterman was traveling in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, Mexico, where the blue agave plantations produce most of the world's true tequilas. He hooked up with the superpatrons of artisanal tequilas, the late Don Felipe Camarena and his son Don Carlos. The Camarena family had been producing, in small batches and for three generations, the beverage most aficionados agree is one of the finest tequilas going -- El Tesoro de Don Felipe. The encounter sparked an interest in tequila production and Mexican crafts that Alterman quite naturally parlayed into a new restaurant venture.

If you're the kind of person who can't peruse a 200-plus tequila menu without total recall of one very bad night you spent three decades ago with a bottle of Cuervo Gold, then you've come to the right place for some serious reeducation. Tequila's the hot new liquor of the stars, and it happens to be the only alcoholic beverage showing appreciable market growth at the moment. A good tequila can taste like a fine old Scotch if you sip it slowly as an aperitif: the cognoscente use phrases like "smoky with cinnamon, rich tropical fruits, and mild chilies on the finish" to describe their quaffing. The great, aged bottles top out at $350 at MoQuila, but you can get a shot glass of almost anything for around $10. Tequila's a drink that marries beautifully with the salt, chilies, limes, and bitter moles of Mexican cuisine. Whether you can actually taste the "terroir" and whether you prefer the fresh "silver" or the oaky, aged reposados and añejos, it's a liquor redolent of the sun-drenched plateaus of our southern neighbor, with romantic possibilities and histories worth exploring.

Beautiful young things have already staked out their turf at MoQuila; the place was jammed with gorgeous people sipping margaritas and mojitos last Friday and also on a post-hurricane Tuesday. The menu is put together by Chef Rich Garcia, whose heritage is part-Cuban; he's worked at Café Maxx, Marks at the Park, and Gotham City -- all the biggies. It's mean of me to review a restaurant that's less than a month old, because clearly Garcia and his staff still have kinks to work out. But there are already successes on this menu, and the place is a lot of fun. I want you to get in early.

Recommended appetizers: a chunky guacamole mashed tableside so you can orchestrate proportions of chilies, roasted poblanos, tomatoes, and lime ($9.95). The mashing-up guy wheels a cart over and offers it without quoting a price, so beware, this is no freebie. MoQuila serves its guac in massive lava stone mortars with lots of crisp, airy, homemade tortilla chips. With a shot of corralejo anejo ($11.27), a spicy, nearly rum-like tequila, and a sangrita chaser ($1), we can hardly imagine a more thrilling way to kick off a meal.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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