If you already know and love Rivera's Mexican Food, I apologize: What you're about to read probably will make your favorite Mexican restaurant even harder to get into.
If you haven't had the pleasure, I offer this friendly advice: Don't show up tonight expecting to waltz right in.
The 62-seat eatery Jesus and Tracey Rivera opened near 120th and Blondo Streets five and a half years ago doesn't take reservations. And crowds at dinner (and even late-week lunches) aren't uncommon.
We beat the rush, just barely, on pleasant Wednesday and Friday nights late last month. On each occasion, the loud and lively dining room was nearly full when we got there, with a crowd at the bar and a line out the door by the time we left. The folks without tables didn't seem to mind. Perhaps they already knew what we'd discovered: The food's worth waiting for.
Chef-owner Jesus Rivera serves dishes he grew up with in Puebla, Mexico, as well as some items more common along Mexico's coasts. His bar boasts more than 80 tequilas, and his menu sports lots of unusual-for-Omaha Mexican fare: Shrimp Alambres (bacon-wrapped shrimp with a spiced cheese-and-bread crumb stuffing), chiles en nogada (stuffed peppers with a walnut cream sauce and a pomegranate reduction), some dishes cooked in banana leaves and several items featuring seafood (lobster, crab, shrimp, mahi-mahi).
The sauces on our visits were a particular delight.
The sunset-colored house salsa seemed to fire every happy neuron in my brain. Its peppery core bobbed on waves of fresh, fruity, floral, nutty, sweet and smoky flavors. I sought the most spoon-shaped chips and contemplated using my straw. The chef later explained that the salsa gets its pretty orange color not from some unusual pepper, but from grilled tomatoes and slow-roasted jalapeños and onions that he blends, while they're still hot, with spices, citrus juices and cilantro. It's served with thin-as-parchment corn chips after you place an order, and the first batch is free.
Two sauces atop the chile en nogada were interesting and delicious. The poblano chile pepper had been stuffed with mild and pepper-laced Monterey Jack cheeses, lightly battered and fried, blanketed with a white walnut-cream sauce and lashed with a reduction of spiced pomegranate juice and red wine. The effect was an archaeological dig of flavor: The sweet-tart pomegranate sauce (with a hint of clove) cut through the sweet-and-nutty walnut cream (with flashes of cinnamon and nutmeg), which gave way to the crisp coating and mild-but-definitely-there kick of poblano pepper, which unearthed the gooey white cheese, which had me hunting for more pomegranate and a bigger fork.
Jesus Rivera told me later that the dish originated in Puebla to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. (Its red, white and green colors reflect those of the Mexican flag.) He said he serves an even more traditional version each September -- stuffed with a picadillo of spiced ground pork, pineapple and pine nuts instead of cheeses.
When you hear “Mexican,” you might not think “lobster.” But the lobster-and-shrimp-stuffed Enchiladas Acapulco I tried were exquisite, topped with a cream sauce made heavenly with sweet lobster paste, fresh cilantro, and sauteed onion, garlic and serrano pepper. The dish was garnished with cotija cheese, fine slices of radish, shreds of lettuce and a drizzle of herbed sour cream.
The Shrimp Alambres appetizer was genius. The Riveras solve the usual problem of bacon-wrapped shrimp (alternately overcooked shrimp or undercooked bacon) by insulating the tail-on shrimp with a deliciously spiced mixture of bread crumbs, poblano and red bell pepper, onion, oregano and cotija and pepper Jack cheeses. The result is crisp, grill-charred bacon with juicy shrimp and a delightful stuffing.
Pork and chicken taquitos (fried rolled tacos) were tasty, especially with drizzles of spicy green salsa and chef Rivera's version of ranch dressing (sour cream thinned with lime juice and spiked with cilantro, cumin and other spices). Tacos al pastor were a little oily but good: soft corn tortillas with slow-roasted spice-rubbed pork shoulder, doused in an orange-red adobo marinade, grilled to order and topped with fresh onion and cilantro.
Refried beans and red rice were well-seasoned, and black beans were phenomenal: studded with corn, tomato and green onions and infused with a briny garlic-pork flavor that made them hard to resist even when we were full.
A nicely chopped pico de gallo (vegetable relish) served with the Fajitas Matador (grilled skirt steak, poblano and red bell peppers, onions and some spicy-oily chorizo) tasted fresh and was laced with something I swore was burning little holes into my tongue (a few sneaky serrano pepper seeds, I now gather).
Puebla is known for great mole poblano sauces, and I was looking forward to the one served atop chicken enchiladas at Rivera's. Though it was definitely bold and complex a thick, dark brown sauce laced with myriad dried chiles and ground spices, nuts, fruit and chocolate it skewed a little hot and way too bitter for me (possibly the result of finely ground sesame seeds, chef Rivera suggested). Next time I'll try the green mole, also called a pipian sauce, which is made with toasted pumpkin seeds.
The only truly regrettable dish, I thought, was the jalapeño poppers, part of an appetizer combo: Those breaded and fried super-hot peppers, stuffed with Velveeta and pepper Jack cheeses, were all fire and no flavor and seemed like a Tex-Mex copout.
Family-sized sopaipillas (fried dough drizzled with honey) and less-sharable flan (the caramel-imbued custard) had more soul. And a pomegranate margarita and a Bohemia beer, served with fresh lime, were refreshing.
On the Friday night, service seemed well-oiled, with speedy delivery, good pacing (entrees served all at once, about 10 seconds after appetizer plates were cleared) and a team approach to getting orders out hot even with a party of about 20 dominating the center of the tiny dining room. Servers seemed good-humored, knowledgeable and as well-seasoned as the food.
On the Wednesday evening, the place seemed a little understaffed. (It was indeed short a person, I later learned.) We were seated and given menus promptly, but there was a longish wait to order and get our drinks, one dish was delivered with the wrong beans, entrees were slightly staggered, and the two servers we saw scurrying seemed to be falling behind as the line grew.
The prices were right: neither counter-service cheap nor fine-dining high, with most lunch items about $9 and most dinner entrees $11 to $13. Portions weren't unwieldy, but with the chips-and-salsa starter, it was hard to leave without leftovers.
The cozy strip mall space tended to be noisy, with conversation bouncing from booths and tables to the suspended ceiling tiles and the stucco walls. Neon beer signs, framed Mexican photos, mirrors, sombreros, a piñata and servers in logo T-shirts with “A taste of Mexico in Omaha” gave the room a quirky, casual feel.
And a thoughtful trio -- a bar at the back, a host stand near the door and a vestibule with benches at the front -- suggested a hospitable wait for anyone craving Mexican flavor.
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