First impression: While it seems every Mexican fast casual restaurant calls its food "fresh," I still think too much of what they serve is made in some central kitchen far far away. But if you peak into the kitchen at Salsa Fiesta, you can actually watch avocado being scooped for guacamole. More importantly, the combinations at Salsa Fiesta are so much more original than most Mexican spots. It's not all about sour cream and grated cheese.
Background: Salsa Fiesta is owned by Cesar Olivo, his wife and business partner, Adriana Perez Benatar, and her brother, Samuel Perez Benatar. They are originally from Venezuela where Cesar and Adriana once owned 18 franchised locations of a concept they called American Hot Dogs. They sold their hot dog chain and brought in Samuel for Salsa Fiesta, first in Venezuela and then in Miami in 2006. Pembroke Pines opened in 2011 and Aventura last month. They still have five Salsa Fiesta locations in Caracas. Who doesn't want to support a South Florida-based company with an eye toward even more regional locations?
Ambience: Lively, colorful interiors feature Aztec and Mayan-inspired murals and artwork. Each restaurant has been transformed from strip-mall bland to loft-like industrial with wrought iron, beer bottle chandeliers and mismatched chairs and tables inside and out. Eat-in guests are served on gorgeous recycled bamboo plates accompanied by real flatware.
Starters: You must start with hot tamale salsa ($2.99), a yellow, corn-based puree that packs some heat and is perfect for dipping fresh tortilla chips. A light eater could make a meal of Harvest Fiesta ($6.50), a cup of tortilla soup with a side of mango salsa and three chicken flautas.
Entree excellence: Is it Venezuela's multicultural cuisine that inspires the unique combinations on the menu? There are four taco variations ($2.99 each or $8.99 as a platter), for instance. I loved the Guerrero taco with onions, cilantro, mango salsa, red cabbage, cilantro cream and cheese. Spicy Tango Taco is topped with poblano rajas, roasted corn, lettuce, chili salsa and cheese. Each taco comes with choice of tortilla (crispy corn, soft flour, whole wheat, soft corn or low-fat lettuce wrap) and choice of fillings (chicken, beef, carnitas, veggies). It's 33 cents more for steak or fish. Nachos Fiesta ($6.69) gives you tortilla chips topped with black beans, melted cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. Add beef, carnitas or vegetables for $1 or steak or fish for $1.50.
The specialties section of the menu includes Salsa enchiladas ($10.50), three chicken or steak rolls with either roasted tomato or green tomatillo salsa with melted cheese, lettuce and sour cream. Black beans and very good cilantro-lime rice accompany the dish. I loved the slightly spicy/slightly sour tasting roasted tomato salsa. From the classics section of the menu, try Tostones Fiesta ($7.69), fresh crispy tostones with black beans, melted cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. The menu also includes a section of tortas ($6.99 or $8.99 as a platter) — sandwiches made on the Mexican flat bread called telera. They're filled with everything from crispy chicken to spicy pork carnitas.
On the lighter side: The Urban Bowl ($8.99) is made without a tortilla and combines the cilantro-lime rice with black beans, lettuce, avocado cream, pico de gallo and guacamole. You can add chicken, beef, carnitas, veggies or sour cream and cheese for 99 cents.
Service: Guests order from a cashier, who finishes by handing you a buzzer to take back to your table. Study the menu online before you arrive because newcomers have a way of slowing things down. What I like about Salsa Fiesta is that staff members don't forget about you once you've ordered. They check back to see if you need anything else.
Liquid assets: Nice Mexican beer selection including Negra Modelo ($3.99) and Agave wheat beer on draft ($4.50).
Cobblestone Plaza, 14914 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, 954-432-0005; Biscayne Harbour Shops, 18167 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura, 305-931-7401; 2929 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 305-400-8245.
Hours: lunch and dinner daily