I confess I was a bit skeptical upon hearing Ramon Q's slogan: "Mexican food with a twist," as if they'd really be able to distinguish their tacos and the like from the plethora of others locally. But I bought in when, after her first bite of the Q's Stacked Enchiladas ($12), my dinner guest turned to me and said, "It's good — it's a little different."
And that little difference across the majority of the plates we sampled indeed is the proven twist. It's subtle and sometimes as simple as an unexpected garnish like a cilantro-, garlic-, jalapeño- and lime-laced sour cream salsa drizzled over sides of jasmine rice (itself a spin on the expected Spanish-style grain).
On those enchiladas, the four-tortilla stack versus the traditional wrap presentation primarily distinguishes it, but a dark sauce makes it great. It's homemade (like almost everything) with naturally smoky, house-ground chile de árbol powder meeting spices like cumin and chicken powder. Its spicy earthiness gets slightly tamed by cooling sour cream and cheddar-jack cheese plus the runny yolk of a recommended added egg ($1).
To that same sauce, Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips are added to form chef/owner Elizabeth St. James' awesome, made-to-order mole sauce on a mole chicken plate ($12), consisting of a generous trio of nicely charred, juicy boneless breasts. The twist here is that it's actually chocolate-y, really cacao-rich as compared to the boring jarred versions out there. Only a tomato, onion and jalapeño relish next to good refried beans garnished with cheddar-jack strands and Cotija cheese crumbles keeps the dish from turning into an all-out savory dessert.
Another big winner with a semi-sweet edge, provided by brown sugar, honey and an interesting orange marmalade added to red chile paste to form a mojo chile dip, is the jalapeño popper starter ($10). The poppers themselves are beyond a twist; they're a complete re-imagining made with bacon, onions, cheddar-jack and cream cheese stuffed into truly hot jalapeños enveloped in wonton wrappers.
The Q's Twisted Burger ($13), nearly as unruly as a Crave burger creation, piles hickory-smoked brisket, marinated in cinnamon and coffee grounds, plus bacon strips, avocado wedges, sautéed onions and jalapeños, and a green salsa over a 1/3-pound patty. It's a flavorful bomb of smoke and spice next to soft potato wedges that could be crispier.
Leaving the twists mostly behind, more conventional yet noticeably fresh dishes can be found in selections like the Q's Blackened Fish Taco Plate ($12) and Q's Deuce Burritos ($13). The former wraps two soft corn tortillas around nicely seasoned tilapia with crunchy cabbage and avocado segments dressed in a Vidalia onion sauce and more of the house sour cream salsa. It's a great light option compared to the gut-testing, heavy Deuce, which is a good price deal over the $10 Uno and a smart choice for moderation over the Trifecta ($17) — a dish that delivers three of the ground beef and refried bean burritos under a flavorful green chile with guacamole, sour cream and more cheddar-jack. Finish that in a sitting as "The Q's Challenge" and it's free.
Also in more familiar, though non-Mexican realms, dessert delivers a likeable vanilla ice cream-filled chewy cannoli (not housemade) with a chocolate and honey garnish and Heath bar crumbles. An Oreo Mousse (also $7) mixes the cookies with graham crackers as a crust and adds more crumble into a vanilla ice cream layer and as a topping. It eats like a recipe found on the back of the box, which is to say it's fine in the way that many holiday-party-type contributions that start with commercial products are. As such, it's perhaps the only item that points to this being St. James' first restaurant venture, where favorite family plates from 23 years as a stay-at-home-mom have been refined for the restaurant atmosphere.
That atmosphere is impressive, by the way. Past multi-color chairs on a comfortable gravel patio, the former Terrazza Grill has received a major decorative overhaul inside. It includes fresh splashes of red and black paint, an entire wall of decorative mirrors to add the illusion of a larger dining room, handsome dark stone countertops, brushed metal paneling, and wall decorations that range from commanding zebra paintings to local sports paraphernalia. It too is twisted, kind of like an industrial bachelor pad mated with a Southwestern sports bar.
Attentive general manager Michael Giberti adds even more flair with a hint of a New York accent in his lively banter about how good St. James' food is — she's his girlfriend, "the love of my life." Before you've finished being unnecessarily intimidated by his fat biceps, tattoos spilling every which way toward his wrists, he'll have smooth-talked you into one of his two signature margaritas. A trusted food friend has reported cloying over-sweetness to hers and disappointment over two visits, but I was satisfied by my salt-rimmed top shelf order ($7), a blend of oak-cask-aged Cabo Wabo Reposado, orange liqueur, lime and agave.
There are better and many worse margaritas in town, but that's a highly contentious arena, just like our saturated Mexican marketplace at-large. Ramon Q's sports enough interesting touches that it should distinguish itself just fine. After a short few months in business, menu additions continue in response to positive customer feedback on daily specials.
And the proprietors clearly exude passion, which should never have to be considered a twist.