Downtown Davidson has always been quaint with a charm that comes from being a small college town with vibrant shops and a bustling Saturday farmers market. Restaurants like Toast, Kindred and the longtime Soda Shop have a local following along the Main Street strip. But, there’s always room for more, as spaces continue to come and go. Mestizo, which opened last year in a former office space, adds contemporary Mexican food to the mix.
The setting is modern with colorful art along the walls, tables that share photos and customs of Mexico (covered with a table cloth at dinner though) and snazzy light fixtures and decor. Though it’s too cold to occupy the outdoor patio at the moment, it’s something to keep in mind for the spring or in the event that we get more unexpected warm weather.
Chef Raul Ortegon, a native of Acapulco, Mexico, mans the kitchen where an assortment of dishes are created to be both visually and edibly pleasing. This includes the irresistible lobster paella enchiladas and other specialty dishes like mixiote de pollo.
Ortegon started cooking back in Mexico when he was 14 years old. His family shares his love for cooking and he speaks highly of his mother’s salsa, which has inspired recipes in the past. Since coming to Charlotte in 1996, he’s worked in a variety of restaurants in and around the area. But at his current home at Mestizo his culinary craft shines. “I want my clientele to fall in love with my food,” he says.
Creative Loafing: What was your main influence when crafting the menu?
Raul Ortegon: I worked in Mexico for a long time. My family was always cooking. Acapulco, where I’m from, was on the Ocean Pacific. There was a lot of fish and a lot of seafood. I’ve modified a lot of recipes from over the years and combined a lot of things. It’s more upscale here and the food is healthy. I use fresh ingredients and focus a lot on the flavors.
What is the number one thing you wish more people knew about Mexican cuisine and what do you think sets Mestizo apart from other Mexican restaurants in the area?
I want people to know that Mexican food can be healthy. [It can be] light, upscale, not always super hot or spicy and diverse. Mexican food is internationally known and is much more than tacos, rice and beans.
At Mestizo, we have more seafood. We don’t have a freezer and our menu is smaller and diverse. Our food brings more contemporary options — we use coconut oil instead of lard, there are gluten-free options and baked items instead of fried.
How would you best describe your cuisine, and what is one of your favorite dishes to create for your customers?
For me, cooking is my passion. It is like art, like music for a composer. I love to create, invent, reinvent and play with the recipes. I enjoy cooking simple dishes as much as elaborated ones, but my favorites are the shrimp and scallops and the lobster paella enchiladas.