Don’t think of the newly opened Moctezuma’s in Gig Harbor as the typical family Mexican restaurant complete with a mariachi soundtrack and chips and salsa served by the bucket.
Think of Moctezuma’s as a restaurant with contemporary flavor. It’s approachable, but sophisticated.
Moctezuma’s Gig Harbor opened July 2 in its new home - the former Harbor Monsoon space, which closed last Fall to make way for Moctezuma’s after the restaurant closed its 18-year home across Point Fosdick Drive near the Safeway.
First, the interior. Operations manager Bernie Garcia, son of founder Arturo Garcia, said he reworked the space with the aid of Sue Genty, a designer who also worked on South Sound restaurants Blazing Onion and Paddy Coyne's.
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"I went to Mexico, picked out furniture and tiles, light fixtures and design elements that will be incorporated, " said Garcia in the spring when he described the extensive remodeling of the 5,000 square foot space that seats about 100 in a sprawling dining room and 60 in the bar. Garcia hit just the right note when he described the interior as "an integration of authentic, quality Mexican with a little bit of a contemporary feel and touch to it."
Style starts at the oversized wooden doors, a grouping of lit-up balls forming a metal chandelier just above. The bar flanked the entry and looked mysterious and deep, I wanted to veer inside. A tile hallway in the opposite direction spilled into a dining room with polished concrete floors. Metal fixtures hung in a festive grouping in one dining room, a round fire bowl commanded attention in a flanking dining room. Hanging lamps must turn the space moody at night. A vibrant palate of coffee, chocolate, pumpkin and red wine made me sit back and absorb the scene, the cushioned booths and deep-set curved chairs made me want to linger.
Garcia rewrote the menu to offer more sophisticated fare with modern flourishes. His menu nods to Jalisco, where the Garcia family has roots. "We've got the same menu we've had in the past, most of the menu is going to be what we had before, but adding more items that are more authentic, that you wouldn't see at a typical Mazatlan- or Azteca-type restaurant," he said in the spring. I saw a menu that dipped into fresh Mexican dining, with plenty of grilled meats and descriptions that sounded more flavorful than typical family fare.
A heady swell of spice was a common theme for the food, as was beautiful plating on big, square dishes and ornate ceramic platters. Not a mound of lettuce garnish in sight - salsas and sauces appeared in stylish metal ramekins. The look was clean and fetching.
Mexico City tacos - a staple at the Tacoma Moctezuma’s -showed up in Gig Harbor as chile punched chicken ($12.99), the filling overwhelmed the warmed corn tortillas. Grilled pineapple, cilantro and guacamole cooled the heat some, but this was an assertive dish, be warned. An adobo taco salad with carne asada ($10.99) hit just the right blend of refreshing and spice, a mixed-up bowl of roasted corn, black beans and tomatoes over lettuce. Camarones al tequila ($15.49) were a circle of shrimp and roasted peppers and zucchini in a sauce more creamy than boozy, a hit of poblano left lips stinging. A mound of rice sponged up the sauce.
My teetotaler meal there didn't include a trip to Moctezuma's tequila bar, but you can bet I'll return. I'll write a report later this month about how it compares to the tequila bar at the newly opened fast-casual Mexican restaurant Blue Agave across the street at Uptown Gig Harbor.
Moctezuma’s is a South Sound restaurant with two generations of history. Arturo Garcia first opened Moctezuma’s in a tiny location on South Tacoma Way in 1978, moving the restaurant a decade later to 56th and Tyler. The family opened the original Gig Harbor Moctezuma’s in 1994. Garcia now is semi-retired. His son and daughter - Bernie Garcia and Maribel Arias, now run the Moctezuma's restaurants.