Salvador Robles' little cafe is just a hole in the wall — a tiny storefront in the Albertson's mall at the south end of Bend.
Mexi-Fresh & More seats only two dozen patrons, and with no highway frontage on Business Route 97 (South Third Street), it is an undiscovered ethnic treasure.
That's too bad because the all-in-the-family Mexican home cooking offered to its patrons is some of the best in Central Oregon.
Assisted by his teenage children, most often 16-year-old Salvador, Jr., Robles offers a menu that features everything from south-of-the-border street food (“tacos de la calle") to gourmet fajitas.
Robles, who moved to Central Oregon from his native Mexico more than two decades ago, has long been employed in area restaurants. Even now, Robles works a second job — as Mexi-Fresh, he admitted, has struggled to break even since it opened in June of last year.
He deserves better.
A soundtrack of mariachi music injects a fiesta spirit into his cafe, which appears larger than it is because its eight tables are widely spaced. Ceramic artwork and metalwork is carefully presented on walls of ochre and rust colors. Large windows face the parking area on the south side of the Albertson's supermarket.
Carnitas and shrimp
Menu specials, supplementing a large daily menu, are offered on a prominently displayed whiteboard.
When we arrived for dinner one early evening, my dining companion spied a pork carnitas special on the board and immediately decided her order. Tender, slow-roasted pork shoulder — the chunks of meat partially shredded — were served in a light sauce with rice and beans.
My order was camarones al mojo de ajo, or garlic shrimp. Large prawns were sauteed with fresh mushrooms and onions in a buttery blend of garlic with spices. They were perfectly cooked; the flavors were delicious.
We did have some disappointments, however. To start, there were no options to the accompanying Spanish-style rice and refried beans. I often prefer black beans to frijoles, for instance, but this choice was not available.
There were some service glitches. We ordered fresh guacamole with our basket of chips, presented as a starter, but this was forgotten. A request for an additional paper napkins was likewise overlooked.
The best of three lunch dishes that my companion and I enjoyed, on a subsequent visit, was carne asada. A generous portion of skirt steak, probably 8 ounces, was broiled and served with creamy guacamole and chunky pico de gallo. My friend tends to judge the quality of a Mexican restaurant based upon its carne asada, and she was delighted.
I was not so pleased with my chicken taco salad. Although the chunks of poultry were tender and tasty, the bed of iceberg lettuce was tasteless, and the crispy flour tortilla bowl got soggy very fast. A few chunks of tomato were included with the salad, but the mix could have used onions, black olives and perhaps some beans. Cheese was melted in rather than shredded on top, and dollops of sour cream and guacamole added only minimal flavor.
We did bring two steak tacos home to my companion's teenage son, and they disappeared quickly. Prepared in traditional style, the beef was folded into soft corn tortillas with cilantro, onions, lime and a house-made green tomatillo sauce. The boy was delighted.
Some diners may consider it a shortcoming that Mexi-Fresh does not yet offer beer or margaritas. Although he wants to continue to emphasize the family-friendly aspect of his restaurant, Robles said he is contemplating an application for a license to serve alcohol.
That could turn out to be a shot in the arm for an excellent little restaurant that deserves more attention from local Mexican food lovers.
Brickhouse Steak & Seafood has signed a lease to move into the old firehouse on Minnesota Avenue (at Lava Street) in downtown Bend. Owner Jeff Porad said he expects to open in April in the restaurant space once occupied by Staccato and Bourbon Street. Until then, he said, he will continue to operate his current Bend restaurant in the Mill Quarter (803 S.W. Industrial Way; 541-728-0334). He said there are no plans to close his Redmond restaurant (412 S.W. Sixth St.; 541-526-1782). The new restaurant, Porad said, will feature an expanded bar menu in the street-side seating area, while fine dining will be offered exclusively in the rear area. www.brickhouse steakhouse.com.