Act I, Scene I. It’s mid-afternoon at Apartment A. As the sun filters through the windows of the 150-year-old building, the soundtrack to pretty much every John Hughes film plays softly overhead. The former dwelling on Coming Street exists squarely in the netherland between restaurant, speakeasy, and doll house. Inside, the wooden bar/foyer is flanked by two small dining areas and the ittiest, bittiest bathroom sink I ever did see. The whole thing is precious. And a titch odd, but this isn’t your typical Mexican restaurant, this is Mississippi Mexican.
Open at 11 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, the actual Apartment A menu focuses on — no spoiler alert here — nachos and tamales, quite possibly the stoner-est offering since Cheez Wiz and Bugles. On both visits, the tamales du jour were spicy beef and chicken ($7/two, $14/four, $20/The Sixer), which arrived lovingly festooned with corn husk bows, the restaurant’s three homemade salsas (mild, hot, and tomatillo/green), and three Keebler Club crackers.
Wait, what? The plot thickens.
When neither server could explain the Keebler crackers, the internet stepped in. It turns out the Mississippi Delta has a 100-year-long history with the “red hot tamale.” Some hypothesize that the tradition came when migrant workers from Mexico who moved to the area to pick cotton, while others claim it was soldiers coming home from the U.S.-Mexican War in the late 1840s who brought news and recipes of this ancient Mayan dish. Either way, purists may want to note that these tamales are Southern more than South of the Border. And the simmered, not steamed Mississippi tradition dictates that the cornmeal/meat combo be spread on a cracker and topped with more hot sauce. Whether you oblige or not, the results are still delectable.
Our spicy beef tamale was not as spicy as the name implied, but still quite flavorful. The cornmeal was imbued with notable chili powder notes and beautifully presented. The chicken tamale was juicier and possessed more kick than its bovine cousin — each bite delivered moist, flavorful, simple pleasure. As for the golden fried nachos ($5 to $20), well, they’re not that memorable on the scale of “great food experiences.” Chips, cheese, and a protein (black beans, black eye peas, ground beef, etc.), they’re thoroughly meh. Expect $7 to garner you an uninspiring 6″ aluminum baking tin filled with yellow corn tortilla chips, melted cheddar cheese, and some seriously dry shredded chicken. Want salsa? Fifty cents. Dirty rice or bacon? Two bucks a pop. Do some quick mental addition and you’ll note a typical bar-style plate with chicken, beans, sour cream, jalapeños, salsa, and guacamole will ultimately cost $12.
If you’re worried about nickels and dimes, the nachos seem to be the only pitfall, however. Prices on the whole are more than fair. Take the chips and dips trio ($4.99, $6.99 or $11.99) for instance. The mid-size option ($6.99) comes with three 4-oz. servings of guacamole, queso, and the house-made salsa of your choice. Forget the nachos. This is how to show a chip you love it. The guacamole is a vibrant green and wonderfully fresh. Comprised of 99 percent perfectly ripe chunky avocado and 1 percent light onion flavor, there’s no real heat here. Same goes for the salsa. Both the hot and mild tomato salsas were endowed with significant oregano notes and a garlic level of relationship-testing intensity. If you come with a date, make an indelible pact to eat it all. Or don’t touch it and have a long discussion about what you both want out of life, because avocados and garlic breath should (hopefully) figure in there somewhere.
Vampires and garlic-phobes may be pleased to learn the green tomatillo salsa contains no discernible garlic. And if you consider your mouth a heat-seeking missile, there are a number of hot sauce bottles to choose from on each of the tables.
Meanwhile, “the queso,” it turns out, is Mississippi Mexican for Velveeta. Regardless, it’s dense and creamy and clings thick and viscous to each chip, rendering them the ooey, gooey, waistline-destroying stuff of junk food dreams. This “not-quite-your-mamacita’s-recipe” tradition continues with the extended menu from the Taco Spot. You see the Taco Spot located next door is also owned by Apartment A owner Jason Vaughn and is to-go only, unless you eat it at Apartment A.
Offering a shamelessly creative, funkified fusion of Tex Mex (black beans, nary a pinto) and Southern (cheddar cheese, no cotija) sensibilities, the Taco Spot has never met a fusion taco it didn’t like. On the traditional side of the taco menu, the fillings come with your choice of flour, corn, or fried corn shells and a choice of the three house-made salsas. The result: 81 different potential combinations.
Prone to analysis paralysis, we leaned on our consummately friendly and helpful waitress for guidance and ultimately ordered a smattering of varieties. The roasted chicken taco ($2.99) arrived with cheddar cheese, iceberg, tomatoes, and green salsa — a typical, if not particularly noteworthy, mouthful. On this particular occasion, the verde salsa was sinus-clearing spicy, adding some welcome zip to an otherwise generic taco.
Meanwhile, the steak taco ($3.39) was prepared on a flour shell, and the flavor of the cheddar cheese took over. The pulled pork ($2.99) and ground beef ($2.99) rounded out our carnivorous choices. Made, once again, with the usual toppings noted above, these tacos weren’t particularly discernible from the steak and chicken variations before them, and the continued heavy hand with the cheddar cheese didn’t really work for us.
Service, as noted, is excellent. Personable and easygoing, the staff alone are worth a visit. And with their assistance, we were directed to the star of the traditional taco show, the blackened fish taco ($2.99). Unwrapping the final tinfoil encrusted packet, also containing cheddar cheese, lettuce, etc., the added kick of cayenne ranch in tandem with the crispy fried corn crunch rendered it something special. Not some Old El Paso pre-made shell that was rewarmed in the oven, the slightly greasy corn casing provided an excellent foil to the moist, flavorful fish. Don’t waste your time dating around. The blackened fish taco is marriage material.
The other side of the taco menu is labeled Dealers Choice and features some funky fusions and equally playful names. Meat the Potatoes ($3.69) is like no other taco we’ve ever experienced, but in a good way. Chunks of steak and fried potatoes mingle with sautéed onions, peppers, and two kinds of cheese. This Philly cheesesteak of tacos — the queso makes an appearance and makes a lot of sense here — is rich, yet balanced and worth a go.
Vegans are invited to the fiesta, as well. The Veggielicious ($3.39) is made with Lowcountry rice, black-eyed peas, and sautéed onions, peppers and zucchini, and topped with verde salsa. The flavors of the slightly bitter legume and tomatillo salsa dominate, and the double layer of corn tortillas get a soggy run for their money, but it’s still an enjoyable option.
Similarly, the Migas Taco ($2.99) from the All-Day Breakfast lineup should be considered a sure thing for vegetarians. A handheld omelet, it’s filled with scrambled eggs, shredded cheddar, sautéed onions and bell peppers, and a mighty spicy jalapeño purée. The bits of crushed tortilla in it are a nice touch, offering a welcome crunch.
Born on the bayou, not in the barrio, Apartment A’s offerings include several sure-fire delights so long as you adjust your expectations a bit north of the border. We’ll be back for the trio, the fish tacos, and some apartment-clearing garlic breath.