Uncle Julio's Fine Mexican Food Opens Tomorrow in Mizner Park

When you think about it, Mizner Park is sort of like an overstuffed, smothered burrito. There are all the fancy Boca ladies sporting expensive jewelry - they're the cheese. There are the teenage children of wealth driving around in cars worth more than the valets who park them make in two years - they're the sour cream. There are the plastic surgery disasters, the retired trust funders, and the proletariat interlopers, who come only to get into heated class battles with the rest of the denizens of Mizner (I bore witness to a particularly ugly display in the main parking garage just the other day) - these people are the rice and beans. But then there are the restaurant workers, a largely ethnic bunch who pour themselves in to the inner workings of Mizner and upscale strip malls like it all over South Florida. They are the meat.

Mizner's latest addition, the "high-end casual" chain Mexican concept Uncle Julio's opening Tuesday afternoon, is, if anything, an worthy experiment to see if this sopping, bursting burrito is ready to eat itself.

Uncle Julio's, hailing originally from Dallas, Texas, brings with it a fairly

outstanding pedigree of awards and a catalog of 13 other restaurants

in markets like D.C., Chicago, and Atlanta. Since 1986, it's stayed afloat in a sea of competitors, seemingly because of a commitment to fresh ingredients made daily and a fairly low price point. The 10,000-square-foot space on the north west corner of Mizner is lavishly decorated to resemble an 1800s Mexican ranch house, from the pastels and terrazzo right on down to the faux bull head hanging off the dining room wall. It's a gorgeous restaurant that feels warm and inviting without being homey, and, with the open-air patio and array of sliding, glass walls that line it, exudes a lively aura. I was there on a press day prior to opening, but it's easy to see that, at capacity, this is going to be one bumping restaurant.

Still, I was skeptical of Julio's - was this going to be another boil-in-a-bag chain experience, selling the idea of what Mexican food is rather than actual, honest Mexican food? But as I was shown around the restaurant during the press tour - a stop at the tortilla maker, where rounds of dough are flattened and run along a sort of vertical conveyor before getting spit out as fresh, beautifully airy flatbreads - I got the feeling that Julio's is not just putting on a show. Even if the recipes aren't remotely authentic, they have the spirit of Mexican food (or at least Tex-Mex food) down to a T -- build your ingredients from scratch, with love and care, and you can't go wrong.

 In the kitchen, cooks were tossing bacon-wrapped shrimp on a grill that slowly growled with Mesquite coals, imparting a smokey, spicy flavor to the steaks, chops, and (get this) quail and frogs legs that cook atop it. Further down the line, a huge braising vessel contained a sizable vat of simmering chicken stock, built on the bones of roasted birds, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, and jalapeno peppers. Smelling that fresh stock, which Julio's makes daily to give backbone to their sauces, I instantly knew these guys had the right idea. A hand-rolled tortilla station bucked up to the broiler, so that the lard-filled tortillas that come from the kitchen have that bite that lets you know they were crafted by the worn hands of some Mexican abuelita. (By the way, the machine-rolled tortillas are purely vegetarian, so non-meat eaters will want to request those.) And at the end of the line, three vats of just-made salsa, still steaming from the heat of that Mequite grill.

After the short tour we had a sampling of a few of Julio's eats: hand-rolled tamales, steamed with shreds of pork and peppers; jalapeno and jack cheese quesadillas; trays of those gorgeous, bacon-wrapped shrimp, each stuffed with jalapeno and cheese; Mesquite-grilled strips of skirt steak and chicken breast for plopping into the fresh tortillas, fajita-style; and gobs of guacamole, sour cream, and that roasted tomato salsa.

Tops on the list: the shrimp, which had a nice textural mix thanks to the bacon, crunchy in some spots and slightly fatty in others. The smoked pork on top of the smoke from the Mesquite got a little strong at times, but the cheese tempered that a bit. (The jalapeno slices therein - de-seeded and ribbed - could've been spicier). The skirt steak was cooked to a nice medium, and plenty flavorful. Julio's fajitas come with clean-looking rings of grilled onion and whole jalapenos, not a mess of limp veggies. The tamales were moist and satisfying, redolent of that fragrant broth and served with chipotle and tomatillo sauces. And perhaps my favorite part of all, the roasted tomato salsa, was smoky and chunky and full of cilantro and capricious chunks of spicy jalapeno that slip in almost unnoticed until you get a big bite. Quite simply, it is a nearly perfect cantina salsa, and though the wafer thin chips may not satisfy Mexican food purists, they pair with this blend just fine.

Everything I tasted was great - I really can't wait to get back once the restaurant is open and do an actual review. Prices are reasonable enough for a few visits as well: entrees run anywhere from $10 for a plate of beef enchiladas to $27 for a 16 oz. cowboy ribeye.  

The other question still remains, though: is Uncle Julio's Fine Mexican Food - with it's wide-smiling and slightly disturbing mascot - going to sell in Mizner? Can you get wealthy Mizner-ites to sup on swirls, Julio's mixture of half frozen sangria, half margarita, served in a frosty beer mug, or dig into a heaping plate of cheese-covered starch? I guess we'll find out. It's not like Boca doesn't already house a couple successful Mexican restaurants. But, somehow, the juxtaposition between the gaudy display of wealth at Mizner and the folks working the back of the house at Julio's - who are essentially being sold back to the masses without ever having to be seen - struck me as a big divide to brave. Maybe Julio's is an attempt to draw a more casual crowd into the stiff park. I for one would consider a trek just to get another helping of Julio's amazingly fresh salsa or to test out what marinated, Mesquite-grilled frog legs taste like.

Uncle Julio's is at 449 Plaza Real in Boca Raton. Call 561-300-3530.

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John Linn