Restaurant Reviews

Sizzlin' Caliente

Mexican food is the fastest-growing trend in ethnic cuisine in America, probably for no other reason than the popularity of the Mexican grill. These days, you can't say "Pass the salsa" without an attendant from Chipotle or Baja Fresh chirping in, "Rojo o verde?" And did we mention On the Border, La Salsa, Moe's, Qdoba, or Tijuana Flats? These chains have all been quick to expand, opening franchises and buying up swaths of land in area development deals as if to answer the collective demand of progressive diners everywhere: "Vamoose, goopy beans-and-cheese-and-lard-smothered Tex-Mex! You're not wanted here anymore!"

In place of the heavy, fatty Mexican food that's been popularized over the past 30 years, these Mexican grills come boasting healthy choices, fresh ingredients, quick service, and limitless salsa bars. You might say the move is a step toward authenticity, another more overarching trend in the marketplace. But competition is so fierce that the only company guaranteed to come out on top is the one manufacturing those little plastic salsa cups with the snap-on tops.

But that's not dissuading John Kunkel, chef/founder/CEO of Miami's own Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, a fledgling chain of restaurants that six months ago launched its third store, this one in Pembroke Pines. Kunkel opened his first Lime in South Beach in 2004 after stumbling across an unlikely location for his business at the time, Taste Bakery Café. The idea for a Mexican grill had been rattling around in his head for a long time, he says. Kunkel's a self-professed Mexican food junkie as well as an inveterate restaurant lifer.

Talk to Kunkel about his work, and you can feel his passion. Though he's the head of operations for a multi-unit franchise, the guy still lives in the trenches, working hands-on with franchisees and overseeing every aspect of the business, from the menus to the patented drink koozies sold at the counter. He's also eminently personable, the kind of dude you'd love to share a beer and a burrito with — or buy them from, at any rate.

The new Pembroke location, the first in Broward County, is in a shopping mall of like-minded businesses — midsized chains like RA Sushi, Stir Crazy, and the Pub, all of which feel hipper than the lumbering chains of old. Coupled with the manufactured mall environs, you get the feeling that Lime, with its blaring pop music and attractive blend of copper countertops and rustic, red brick, is almost too hip. But the polish is intentional. Lime's goal — to one-up full-service eateries by offering quicker food from better ingredients — is off to a fast start. Another franchise location will open this fall in Coconut Creek, and there are plans for a restaurant near the University of Miami. By next year, Kunkel hopes to be opening about ten stores per year for the foreseeable future.

Lime's menu is long for a quick-food concept, though it never strays too far from the Mexican grill norm. There are half a dozen appetizers, four salads, three soups, and a myriad of quesadillas, burritos, and tacos. But the numbers are padded by the fact that each item is a variation on the dozen or so main ingredients. If you like Lime's marinated chicken, which it grills throughout the day, or its guacamole, a garlicky mash made with ripe Hass avocados, then you'll probably like whatever they appear in.

Nearly everything comes with an option of chicken or spicy, picadillo-like ground beef, or — for a little extra — grilled steak, fish (usually mahi, though it's seasonal), or shrimp. It's a practice that will be familiar to anyone who's visited a Mexican grill before, no doubt creating a more attractive profit margin.

It's also the reason you may have a tough time distinguishing the Lime burrito — with meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, and lettuce — from the Big Cali burrito — with meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, and rice. Sure, the Big Cali is bigger. But the nearly identical list of ingredients makes any other differences not immediately apparent.

Dishes each come with slim, crisp tortilla chips, perfect for scooping up any of Lime's six salsas. Each is made in-house daily — from the smoky, charred asada to the tomatillo-based verde — though the salsa suave is far and away the best and most original of the bunch. Kunkel says the stuff was actually a creation of one of his original prep cooks. Puréed tomatoes receive a light dose of chipotle, onion, and (the chef's secret ingredient) crushed tortilla chips sautéed in olive oil. What you get is surprisingly smoky and silky, with an addictive quality that's hard to control if only because it tastes great on nearly everything. Couple the limitless salsas with a cold beer or a Mikearita ($4.75) — Lime's malt liquor take on the traditional marg — and you begin to believe that Kunkel's vision of edging out the sitdowns is viable.

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John Linn