The Takeaway: IC’s New Salvadoran Restaurant Proves Mesa Can Do More Than Pizza
If the name Mesa 503 rings a bell, maybe it’s because it’s the sister company of Mesa Pizza, an Iowa City institution for over a decade. Owners Yolanda Amaya and Luis Hernandez immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1993 and have made visits to their home every year, always eager to revisit the food. Although they got their start in the restaurant business serving unique pizzas, at home they continued to cook their homeland’s recipes, perfecting them and jotting down their favorites in hopes of one day being able to share. these flavors with the people of Iowa.
This day has arrived. Mesa 503 opened in May in a small shopping area between Hy-Vee and Kum and Go on Muscatine. The interior is painted a bright blue with an outline of El Salvador and bright paintings adorning the walls. You’re likely to be greeted at the counter by Amaya, Hernandez, or one of their children, and you can watch them work in the open kitchen. Their pride and enthusiasm in sharing Salvadoran cuisine with people who have never tasted it is palpable.
The ubiquity of Mexican cuisine may lead some to believe they know what Central and South American cuisine tastes like. Although you’ll see names and ingredients on Mesa 503’s menu that are familiar to you — like enchiladas and tamales — this food stands out for its flavors and presentation.
The menu at Mesa 503 is extensive and offers appetizers, a la carte entrees, sides, large plates, and even breakfast options. There are also clearly marked vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. You can create any dining experience you want, whether it’s getting just one main dish, which comes with rice, tortillas and a salad, or ordering a range of smaller dishes to try .
I really like to try a lot of things at once, so I went the small plate route. I ordered a pork rib tamale, rice and beans, chicken enchiladas, and two different types of pupusas. The tamale was rich and moist, and the pork was so tender it fell apart. The rice and beans were no different from what I came to know via Mexican restaurants, but with one important distinction: they came together, which made my day. I always mix rice and beans together when I get them, but you usually have a little more of one than the other or you don’t get quite the right ratio when you mix them. Serving them as a mixed dish meant rice and beans evenly spread in each bite. For those who like them separate, they are also available as individual pieces.
The pupusas and enchiladas are the two items that really took me into whole new territory. Pupusas are corn flour discs stuffed with white masa harina. Mesa 503 has nine different filling options – I chose the cheese and jalapeño versions and the cheese and chorizo versions. They came with a mix of coleslaw and pickled carrots and a tomato based sauce that has a hint of spice and lots of tomato sweetness; think of the taste of a warm grape tomato straight out of your garden. Layered on top of the pupusa, the vegetables and sauce balance out the richness of the cheese, meat and dough and make for a truly balanced bite with a complex flavor. They are also the perfect size to fill you up but not too much.
The enchiladas were completely different from their Mexican counterparts. They were made up of fried corn tortillas which are both smaller and thicker than any I’ve had, and they’re layered with chicken, cubed potatoes, crunchy cabbage and cucumber, tomatoes, a slice of boiled egg and a pinch of cheese. All the fresh vegetables made the dish light, not too meaty, and gave the dish a nice texture, much like the dining experience of a particularly hearty salad or a really good plate of hummus.
Mesa 503 takes ingredients we all know and love – beans, cheese, tortillas – and turns them into dishes that are both familiar and distinctive, like when a new musician puts their spin on a timeless song. Visit this Mesa brother and experience the melody yourself.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 308.