I seldom have been so perplexed about a new restaurant. The prospect of NuMex's opening in the Grand Central District swirled more than a year ago and I watched the hip little building come together. The spelling of the name itself was confusing: Was this the food of New Mexico, or more nuevo Mexican? Turns out neither precisely.
It's a restaurant in homage to the subspecies of Anaheim chile pepper seeds first bred at New Mexico State University, the ones that are used for chile rellenos and other deliciousness. Hmm, this seemed like good news, because NuMex was gunning for a spot smack dab in Taco Alley: Casita Taqueria, Nitally's, the very recently departed Taco Bus, Red Mesa Mercado, even Punky's does Taco Tuesday.
And then it opened Sept. 4. And closed a week later. And reopened Oct. 4 with a significantly different staff. But only four days a week, a financially audacious strategy for a restaurant that has only about 20 seats inside and a similar number on the sidewalk in front.
I spoke with owner Ray Smith by phone. He's been out of the restaurant business for the past nine years doing real estate investment, but managed restaurants in Colorado for six years. A huge fan of the cuisine of New Mexico, he wanted to bring it here but had to figure out the cost-effectiveness of bringing the Hatch Valley chiles to Florida. The reason for the closure: The launch chef, he says, couldn't handle it and jumped ship. Then Hurricane Irma came and Smith took the time to retool.
A restaurant that is attempting something a little different succeeds or fails on the strength of its storytelling. Diners are willing to go all in with a leap of faith, but there has to be a narrative that is coherent and consistent. Smith said to me: "People come looking for that Mexico taste and are getting New Mexico, so they might think our red sauce is bland."
Hold up. Someone is not doing their job of explaining the aims of the restaurant. In a couple of visits, Smith was the only staff person who effectively told us about Hatch chiles and the ways in which New Mexican cuisine is different from Mexican cuisine. Without that information, the food indeed seems a little bland. While wholesome-seeming (with laudable attention paid to vegans), most dishes lacked intensity of flavor, even sufficient salt.
Much of the short, homestyle menu is impacted or anchored by the green and the red smooth salsa purees. They are served in super generous quantities with the chips and trio ($10.99), but twice we left most of those uneaten in favor of the guilty-pleasure green chile queso — I think back to a trip to Sante Fe last year and these just didn't have the verve or depth of any of the salsas I encountered there.
A red chile chopped salad ($9.99) features decent ingredients like crunchy jicama and nice greens from nearby Brick Street Farms, but its vinaigrette was clunky and oversweet.
Both the green chile pork stew ($3.99-$5.99) and the pinto bean beef chile, offered in red and green ($5.99) were homey, with a little lingering heat, but didn't have that layered, nuanced flavor I associate with the best New Mexican dishes. Smith is right: The cuisine is less of a heat wallop than a complicated dance of flavors. I'm just not seeing it here yet.
The two best dishes so far are the machaca plate ($10.99) and the carne adovada plate ($9.99), the former a marinated, dried and rehydrated ground grass-fed beef dish served with tortillas and alongside stewed pintos, rice and a cup of hominy posole. The latter is shredded pork in a red-tinged sauce, also served with simple pintos, a scoop of rice, a frizzle of salad greens and a cup of posole. Both read like humble home cooking, in a good way.
The chocolate flan ($5.99) is tasty, but the presentation on both desserts are identical and need to be rethought: 1996 called and wants its strawberry fans and sauce squiggles back.
Grand Central is increasingly crowded with solid dining options, many at precisely NuMex's price point (NuMex has a reasonable wine markup, but ho-hum sangria and wine-based margaritas). In order to distinguish himself, Smith will have to impress upon his staff the importance of telling the story of New Mexican chiles, what makes this food different. In a sense, it's untrammeled ground. We have almost no New Mexican and very few Southwestern restaurants in these parts. If he aims to bowl a strike in Taco Alley, he's got to do something Nu.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.
NuMex Chile Centric Cuisine
2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 592-4326, numexchile.com
Cuisine: New Mexican
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday (just added), Wednesday and Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; no reservations; beer and wine and wine-based cocktails
Prices: Appetizers $3.99-$10.99; entrees $9.99-$10.99
Rating, out of four stars: Food: ** Service: ** Atmosphere: **