What might be the best Mexican restaurant in the Toledo area is hidden in plain sight.
Buried in a busy strip mall behind a Kroger just off Interstate 75 in Perrysburg and sandwiched between a Mediterranean fast food joint, a sports bar, and a Chinese restaurant is Cocina de Carlos, an oasis of fresh, creative dishes that transcend their culinary genre.
The clean, bright restaurant is the work of Carlos Mendez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, and a 12-year veteran of the U.S. restaurant business. He and his family have been in the Toledo area for seven years and Cocina de Carlos' menu emphasizes fresh food, with a pledge that nothing is frozen or comes from a can.
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The Mendez family works in the restaurant and on one of our visits Carlos came to our table, explained one of the signature dishes, offered a few recommendations, and encouraged us to ask for our food to be extra spicy if we desired.
He suggested the mijas burrito ($11), which we ordered with steak. It was baked with hot salsa on top and stuffed with pinto beans and Spanish rice. One of the major advantages of a Cocina de Carlos dish is that instead of slathering the food in goopy, generic cheese, a creamy, comfort-food queso blanco sauce is featured. Toss in an extra jalapeno-fueled kick that was fiery but not scorching hot and this dish served with guacamole, lettuce, and tomatoes transcended a typical burrito.
The big showpiece dish was the Don Charly ($13-$15) that features a pineapple sliced in half and filled with your choice of a protein (steak, chicken, chorizo, shrimp, seafood, bacon) or vegetable along with onions, pineapple chunks, and cheese. It's a legitimately beautiful dish that pairs the sweetness of the fruit with the various spices associated with Mexican food.
It is served with heated tortilla wraps, which makes it essentially a fajita with fruit. Spanish rice and refried beans are served on the side, both of which are somewhat bland and not up to par with the other dishes.
The fajones ($9) is an unassuming but eminently satisfying dish that features fajita-seasoned meat covered in the queso blanco sauce and served over a bed of rice with cilantro.
Cocina de Carlos' dinner menu has a number of other dishes we're eager to explore and that go well beyond the burrito/taco/enchilada/chips-and-salsa doldrums that mark most Mexican restaurants. We're intrigued by the spicy mango fajitas featuring bacon, vegetarian portobello tacos, and pork with nopales.
On our lunch visit I visited the buffet, assuming that it would be a good opportunity to explore a number of dishes. But I should have known better because the very nature of buffets — food prepared well in advance and then kept hot under lights for hours at a time — generally doesn't showcase a restaurant's quality.
The beef ($8-$10) for the tacos was runny, which likely was the result of keeping it too moist to avoid drying out. The shredded chicken made for a nice burrito and the pork-filled taquitos were good but nothing special.
The huevos rancheros ($6) from the regular lunch menu featured a couple of scrambled eggs covered in mild red sauce and cheese and were served with rice and beans. The sauce was better than average, but we would have liked more of it. Carne asada ($8) — grilled ribeye served with rice and beans and a tortilla — was uninspiring.
The lunch menu is standard for a Mexican restaurant and not where Cocina de Carlos shines at this point in its evolution. There were only a handful of people there on our visit compared to the bustling and lively crowd that were in the place on a weeknight evening.
The staff at Cocina de Carlos was professional, and the restaurant is clean and visually appealing with brightly painted walls and an open, airy atmosphere. There is a small bar, and chips and homemade salsa are complimentary.
The restaurant is located at the Fremont Pike exit and east of the highway. It's worth exploring if you're weary of the predictable south-of-the-border fare that generally marks the local restaurant landscape.
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Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants. The Blade pays for critics' meals.