I pay a fair amount of attention to Mexican cuisine, or as I often say with an annoying and pretentious accent, “La Cocina Mexicana.” In our own backyard (all over North Charleston) lies an abundance of good, simple, real Mexican food. Sal Parco’s most recent venture, Uno Mas, attempts to recreate this food with upscale ingredients and ambience. At first glance–and to be fair I’ve only eaten at Uno Mas once since it recently opened–the food is really no better than what you can find in North Charleston (and in some cases much worse), only it is served to you by a guayabera clad waitron while Cuban music plays. I can forgive this intransigence because it exists everywhere. But imagine finding an American restaurant in Japan that serves American food but plays Irish Folk Songs and requires its staff to wear riverdance costumes. Though the irony may seem unimportant, it becomes hard to take such a place seriously (even if it is funny irony). Come to think of it, Taco Boy commits the same crime. I swear, it’s everywhere.
I like Uno Mas more for what it isn’t than for what it is. The menu is very unconfused–no stupid Asian Fusion on its periphery, no annoying Tex Mex dishes like fajitas or extreme burritos, and overall a pretty good sense of identity. However, for all of its authenticity, the menu’s items are pretty insipid and lifeless. I tried the taco sampler which features six of the meats also found on the entree list. While nothing was strikingly bad, nothing was strikingly great. The stewed meats lacked the rich confit fattiness of great carnitas or al pastor meat while the seafood, although fresh, did not seem to be anything more than just cooked. Of all the nice chiles mentioned on the menu–Ancho, Pasilla, Guajillo…none really popped or added any of that fruity, smoky richness characteristic of proper chile manipulation (might I suggest quickly toasting the dried chiles over open flame to release their flavors). The black beans were undersalted and tasteless and should be refried or at least mashed a bit—whole black beans are Yucatecan and/or Caribbean and do not match the rest of the menu.
Parco’s model for restaurants, judging by those that have preceded this one–Mustard Seed, Sette, Boulevard diner…is basically to shoot for middle-priced, good, accessible food. To this end, he has always succeeded and does so again. Uno Mas is not Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill (Chicago) which does a great job with its treatment of upscale Mexican cocina (Bayless has a formidable collection of cookbooks and you’ve probably seen his frontera brand salsas in the supermarket). It is definitely not one of the Mexico D. F. classics (check out this recent Bittman piece in the NY times: http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/travel/28Choice.html). But I guess that is not the point…
Maybe Uno Mas doesn’t deserve to be thrown in the same pool with really serious Mexican Restaurants around the country. And truthfully it isn’t in that category—it will never surprise or innovate—and that’s fine. It’s just that when it calls itself upscale I get excited that something great and new has arrived in Charleston—only to find that it really hasn’t. Oh well, they have a great tequila selection and good enough Margarita’s.