Food & Drink
Firebird Mexican Grill: High-toned Tex-Mex meets modern Mex
Published: January 9, 2013
The firebird, a "magical, glowing" creature, is both the subject of a Russian folk tale and the source of inspiration for Igor Stravinsky's ballet score composed for Sergei Diaghilev in 1910. Firebird is also an open-source database, a former Pontiac model, and a Russian restaurant in New York City… How it also becomes the name of a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio is anybody's guess, but comparisons to Stravinsky's breakthrough composition of just over 100 years ago will not prove helpful — despite all the above. Just thought you'd like to know.
Firebird Mexican Grill occupies one of the old Alamo Cement Company buildings opposite the Quarry; many vintage vestiges, such as the colorful, concrete tiles on the dining room floor, remain, and the building has been treated with respect. (It is regrettable, however, that the marvelous faux-bois grotto created by Dionicio Rodriguez of Broadway bus stop fame has been relegated to a no-man's land between Firebird and the Quarry Hofbrau, businesses owned by interlocking entities that could easily have collaborated on making it a focus.) The menu riffs on local favorites such as chilaquiles and enchiladas verdes, but does so with a combination of respect and invention. If the dishes themselves don't all take flight in a dazzling display of fiery featherworks, then neither are they dull and earthbound.
True, the tableside guacamole, prepared with both lime and orange juices, is pallid compared to the version made famous by Boudro's — but it's at least honest and non-tricky. I liked the "elote," a fancier version of a streetside Mexican corn cup consisting of seriously grilled corn with a lime dressing, cotija cheese, and chopped chiles; it's one case where the variation is as good as the original. The chips and table salsas are also quite good, though the red is more consistent than the sometimes raw-tasting green.
If tempted to have a cocktail with your chips and salsa, here's a factoid to keep in mind: some of them are named for birds that are, if not mythical, at least unique. The Sungrebe margarita, for example, honors a shy aquatic bird that rarely takes flight — though the male of the species can do so while carrying two young in marsupial-like pouches under its wings. I'd love to be able to report that the drink was equally unique, but the blend of chopped cucumber (muddling would be better) with jalapeño (mostly missing), lime, agave nectar, and El Milagro reposado was too tart and simply out of balance. Consider, perhaps, the Caracara Caipirinha with 10 Cane rum and kiwi.
More substantial dishes such as the jalapeño, shrimp, and crab chowder showed promise; the chowder was far too thick for my tastes and lacked its cilantro topping, but the flavors were robust, and there was no skimping on the crab.
Tiny shrimp also find their way into the Gulf shrimp chilaquiles, and here the result is less convincing — especially as the tortilla strips are advertised as being toasted. Yes, the bacon-driven flavors are not shy, but soggy chips would not fly in a traditional Tex-Mex joint, and they shouldn't be tolerated here, either.
Though I could have used more ancho in the Tex-Mex gravy on the shredded short rib enchiladas, I've got to admit that they did a good job on this plate, it resembled a toned-up traditional plato. More lard in the beans? Maybe. But I appreciated the touch of marinated onions. The chocolate tequila cake, for its part, needs a little more rehearsal, but I'm at least now inspired to try the actual Firebird: a fire-roasted chicken with pumpkinseed mole. This, when all is said, may be the bird of most interest to the largest crowd.
Firebird Mexican Grill
7300 Jones Maltsberger
Best Bets Molcajete de elote, shrimp and crab chowder, short rib enchiladas
Hours Sun.-Thurs. 11-10, Fri.-Sat. 11-11