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Sticking to the Ribs

Southwestern flavor rules Meximilian's, where the slabs are hard to beat.

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Sun-soaked steaks at Meximilian's, one of life's simple pleasures. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Sun-soaked steaks at Meximilian's, one of life's simple pleasures.

If there's a better place than the enclosed courtyard at Meximilian's to swill a Corona, suck on some bones, or work your way through a loaded tortilla, you just may have to leave the state to find it. Sure, it helps if the weather cooperates, as it did during a recent Sedona-style Saturday evening, when the Mentor sky was a flawless dome of turquoise and thick tongues of golden sunlight licked the western horizon. Embraced as we were by rough stucco walls and rustic wrought ironwork, and surrounded by the fragrance of burning mesquite, we found ourselves reminiscing about out-of-the-way eateries discovered in towns like Flagstaff, Dallas, and Santa Fe.

Like those casual, unpretentious places, Meximilian's deals in straightforward steaks, ribs, and Tex-Mex fare. Some of it is top-notch and some of it isn't; yet with careful picking and choosing, one can eat very well and relatively inexpensively here. Take the superlative pork ribs: firm, meaty, and slightly charred, yet moist and juicy within. Owner Tony Alesci not only claims these are some of the best ribs in the country, he has the awards -- Best Ribs in Ohio, Best Ribs in America, and Best Sauce in America, all from the 1986 National Rib Burnoff -- to prove it. And while Alesci stopped entering the contest soon after he snagged the Triple Crown, and while 16 years may seem like a long time to rest on one's laurels, Meximilian's ribs and the thick, piquant Texas Sweet Sauce still kick some serious ass. In fact, these are ribs that are worth licking your fingers for . . . or taking your shirt to the dry cleaners for . . . or dribbling sauce down your chin for and not regretting a single stain, splotch, or drip.

Although I once knew a man who ate ribs with a knife and folk, this is certainly not the recommended protocol. Yet it's obvious that under some conditions, and in some getups, gnawing on rib bones -- no matter how good -- isn't entirely apropos. For these times, the menu offers Ribbies: thick slices of mesquite-grilled pork loin, basted and slathered with Texas Sweet Sauce. A great idea, that, but one that faltered in execution. Overdone and dry, the pork was a poor substitute for the rollicking ribs. Better, if you insist on fork food, to go with the boneless barbecued chicken breasts: plump little paeans to the power of wood smoke and the pizzazz of the sauce.

Still, if BBQ isn't quite your cup of tequila, Meximilian's mesquite-grilled steaks (including sirloins, strips, porterhouses, and filet mignons) are an excellent alternative. Our thick, 12-ounce choice Angus strip steak was done as ordered, to a juicy medium-rare, and if not quite fork-tender, it was well seasoned and flavorful. For true richness, it would be hard to beat the mesquite-grilled prime rib, a yielding slab of well-marbled goodness snuggled beneath a thin, aromatic char, and so rich it nearly melted in the mouth; an add-on avalanche of savory sautéed mushrooms was the delicious final touch.

A choice of side dishes comes with the steaks and barbecued entrées; unfortunately, they tend toward the undistinguished. Skip the mundane tossed salad, with its bland packaged croutons and bottled dressing, for instance, and go instead for the crisp, coarse, slightly sweet cole slaw. Among the starches, don't give the soggy baked potato or the ho-hum french fries a second thought; rather, order a batch of the fabulous pan fries: golden nuggets that combine the frangibility of potato chips with the dense, fluffy interiors of the best hand-cut fries.

When Meximilian's first opened in 1981, the focus was on Mexican food. Since that time, though, the steaks and ribs have slowly moved to the fore. We weren't surprised, then, to hear that Alesci is changing the menu to emphasize the grilled goods and will be adding new meats like rack of lamb and veal chops. A name change is also in the works: In the coming weeks, the restaurant will be rechristened "Tony Alesci's Steakhouse at Meximilian's." Still, many of the popular Tex-Mex items will remain.

Those Southwestern-style dishes include chimichangas, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, and tacos (both crisp and soft), served singly or in overflowing combinations. Most rely on beans, cheese, and ground beef or chicken for filling, although a few vegetarian items are clearly identified. Nothing we sampled from this part of the menu was stunningly impressive or outrageously exotic. Still, the Guadalupe Victoria sampler, with a chicken enchilada, a soft chicken taco, and a crisp chicken taco, along with juicy beans, zesty rice, and a little plastic cupful of average guacamole, made a substantial, good-tasting meal. And the massive Fiesta Burro, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, cheese, lettuce, chopped tomato, and rice; topped with enchilada sauce; and sided with beans and rice, was roundly seasoned and satisfying.

Starters range from the divine (a meaty "sampler"-sized portion of ribs) to the dreary (a 50-cent basket of undistinguished tortilla chips with hot and/or mild housemade salsa -- the mild reminding us of tomato paste and the hot reminding us of tomato paste with chile peppers). Nachos Buenos was an entirely pleasant appetizer, though, with its four half-moons of crisp corn tortillas loaded with mildly seasoned ground beef, refried beans, shredded cheese, and sliced jalapeños. And the deliciously dolled-up Quesadilla Suprema -- with sautéed mushrooms, onions, green peppers, ground beef, beans, Monterey Jack, and cheddar cheeses, tucked inside a large flour tortilla and baked to a phyllo-like fragility -- was a happy mouthful that took us right back to El Paso and a little taco stand just off old Route 66.

The no-frills bar serves domestic and imported beer in bottles or on draft, with a jumbo 22-ounce Dortmunder Gold going for a mere $3.50. Here's our advice: Drink the beer, but forget about the bland margaritas, wimpy enough that a companion thoughtfully announced she would have to drink three "in order to achieve the desired effect." Ditto the Strawberry Shortcake, one of the menu's Island Oasis specialty drinks that we chose for dessert over the commercial cheesecake and a second-rate version of fried ice cream, which we'd tried on a previous visit. The blend of strawberries, ice cream, and Amaretto was so thick with crushed ice that it couldn't be sipped through a straw and so diluted that it was hardly worth the effort to try.

While Meximilian's accepts reservations, seats in the secluded courtyard are first-come, first-served. So in case of crowds or inclement weather, diners may find themselves in the recently remodeled indoor dining room -- a clean, expansive space with new carpeting, booths, and decorations. There are other perks to dining here, too, like cloth napkins (not the courtyard's paper ones) and real glassware (unlike the courtyard's plastic cups). And inside as well as out, servers are a cordial lot, adept at keeping the beer flowing and the steaks, ribs, and burritos arriving apace.

When you get right down to it, some nights that's all that really matters.

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