We need another mediocre Mexican restaurant in Dallas about as much as we need a few hundred more potholes. Or promises to fill said potholes. Bumps in the road aside, my heart now bleeds for the citizens of 75220. For years they have been starving for a great neighborhood joint to open in the shopping center at the corner of Northwest Highway and Midway Road.

Sure, they frequent Suze for higher-end dining and Howard Wang’s for satisfactory Chinese, but in Texas, a “neighborhood joint” means Mexican food. You know, a local hang where you feel free to shout across a few tables to a neighbor without offending anyone, where the margaritas flow freely, the tables can slide together, and parties ignite. To their credit, the faithful folks of 75220 have been showing up at Fernando’s door since it opened in May. I know. I’m a 75220 girl, and I’ve returned many times. Each time I open the front door, I silently will the food to get better as I walk to a table. Sadly, on more than three occasions, I’ve passed a table where one of my neighbors pointed to her plate and shrugged with an “oh well” look in her eyes.

Real Tex-Mex lovers in Dallas never settle for less than the best. Lord knows those lard-loaded calories are precious, and few of us can afford to waste them. It’s one thing if you’ve been in New York for a week and you just have to scratch that Mexican food itch with a plate of Yankee (jalapeño-less) nachos. But this is Dallas, the land where Texas food and Mexican food collide into splendid, iconic dishes like a Jimmy’s Special at Herrera’s, a Deluxe 57 at Mi Cocina, or Matt’s Rancho Martinez’s Bob Armstrong Dip: satisfying food that comforts your soul because of its reliability as much as its excellence, because you can anticipate the slightly gluey mouthfeel of the melted cheese and the teeth-coating effect of refritos.

FernandoPadilla_0081_HI Owner Fernando Padilla. photography by Kevin Hunter Marple

The good news is, Fernando’s kitchen produces a good cheese enchilada. Well, sometimes. Once we were served a corn tortilla stuffed with cold shredded cheese, no fresh onion, and covered with a thin chili con carne. Another night, thick chili bubbled against the sides of the plate, the cheese flowed like golden lava, and raw chopped onions burst with flavor—a fine rendition of a Tex-Mex classic.

Guacamole was equally schizophrenic. On one occasion, a crisp tostada held a generous mound of chunky avocado spiked with fresh onion and tomatoes. It was an unusually large portion, too, considering an avocado these days can cost as much as a gallon of gas. On the next visit, though, supply-side economics trickled down and the same dish came with a small, almost whipped scoop that seeped green water across the chip. And speaking of chips, the heart and soul of involuntary eating, the complimentary toastadas were a bore—thick triangles with no hint of grease or salt. (Hey, if we wanted Guiltless Gourmet, we would have stayed home.)

Salsas are the life line of Mexican food, and Fernando’s misses the mark, big time. Pace Picante sauce would have been an improvement over the thin red tomato “salsa” with a slight hint of jalapeño, and Tabasco would have been more interesting than the warm green chile sauce.
Besides Tex-Mex platters, Fernando’s offers a short list of Mexico City specialties along with a few regional dishes that worked. Pollo asado, a marinated chicken breast sautéed with mushrooms, onions, and poblanos served on Mexican rice, was nice and reminded me of a similar dish once served at the gone, but never to be forgotten, Raphael’s on McKinney Avenue. However, the filet San Angel—tournedos of beef tenderloin, grilled and accompanied by a brown sauce of sautéed shrooms, shallots, chilies, and port wine—was bland, and an emergency order of extra jalapeños summoned from the kitchen never arrived.

TresLechesAlFuego_0022 Tres leches cake. photography by Kevin Hunter Marple

At least you won’t have to wait for a server at Fernando’s. With only five other tables seated around us, our server handed us a menu and bounced back to our table every two minutes to take our order. Finally, feeling sorry for him, we capitulated and rushed our choices—our desire for a long chat over dinner ruined. However, we had plenty of time to talk about the aforementioned cold cheese once our entrées boomeranged out of the kitchen eight minutes later.

Owner Fernando Padilla, former general manager of the now closed Il Sorrento, is hands-on and it shows. The pace of the dining room, while rushed, is crisp and professional. The interior is inviting. Subtle warm tones of Mexico permeate the rectangular dining room with a black ceiling. Padilla took 10 years off from the restaurant business and perhaps that accounts for the flabby kitchen performance. Maybe a few more months of working out the kinks will produce a more toned product. But Padilla had better pay attention to his customers’ comments. His competition will eat him for lunch if he doesn’t improve his.

Get contact information for Fernando’s.