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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Fiesta Acapulco

On either side of the entrance to Fiesta Acapulco, a Mexican restaurant in Newburgh, lies a message carved into a slab of stone. “Living our dreams,” it reads. The brand-new, 6,000-square-foot restaurant and packed parking lot testify to the success of owners Melvin and Blanca Ortez, who arrived in the United States years ago in search of the American dream. With a lakefront patio for outdoor dining, an expanded menu, a new Web site, and even a new name, Fiesta Acapulco — the couple’s fourth restaurant — opened in July.

In 1993, Melvin left his home in Honduras and settled in Houston, where he took a job at a seafood restaurant and later was transferred to the Nashville area to train cooks. There, he met Blanca, who hailed from the Jalisco region of Mexico. The couple married in 1999, and during the early 2000s, Melvin managed Mexican restaurants in Nicholasville, Ky. Finally, the couple took a leap of faith and opened their first Acapulco restaurant in 2003 in Newburgh’s Apple Center. A La Grange, Ky., establishment followed the next year, and they opened a North Green River Road location in 2006.

The new Fiesta Acapulco, which replaced the Apple Center restaurant, stemmed from a desire for a better location and more traffic. The lot at the intersection of Bell Road and High Pointe Drive, across the street from Newburgh’s new Wal-Mart, fit the bill, says Melvin. He built the restaurant from the ground up, gaining 1,000 square feet (mostly in kitchen space), adding an outdoor patio, and incorporating a children’s playroom with a flat-screen television and a painted underwater scene mural. The coupled poured an estimated $1.4 million into Fiesta Acapulco: “But it’s worth it,” says Melvin. “It’s a much better location. It’s beautiful where we are. We really like it.”

Although I previously had dined at Acapulco’s Green River Road location, I was eager to experience the Ortez family’s new venture. I arrived with Stephanie Roberts, a close friend from the University of Evansville who now is the executive director of HOLA, a local nonprofit reaching out to the Latino community. Born in Brazil to a Bolivian mother and an American father, she grew up eating many of the traditional dishes found on Fiesta Acapulco’s menu. “Acapulco is so good,” she told me, “and very authentic.” She launched into a good-natured conversation in Spanish with the hostess and waiters as I admired the bustling restaurant’s décor. Behind the hostess station is a colorful beach scene mural with parrots in palm trees and swordfish leaping from the water. A separate bar area echoes the bright color scheme, and diners sit in carved booths and leather chairs with woven wooden bottoms. Children drifted from their parents’ tables into the playroom to watch Finding Nemo. (Melvin and Blanca’s own children, 8-year-old Ivan and 7-year-old Edwin, look forward to weekends, when they accompany their parents to the restaurant. They often spot their classmates from Newburgh’s St. John the Baptist Catholic School.)

After settling into a corner booth, we ordered the restaurant’s Gold Margarita on the rocks. The margarita achieved that refreshing, often-elusive balance between tart lime and biting tequila. Fiesta Acapulco’s drink menu also spotlights nearly two dozen tequilas, an ample selection of Mexican and domestic beers, and various other adult beverages. To kick off the meal, we shared an appetizer of “Chori Queso Fundido,” a cheese dip with Mexican sausage, served bubbling in a hot skillet. It’s made from Chihuahua cheese, a soft, white Mexican cheese that melts into a succulently smooth dip.[pagebreak]

For her entree, my dining companion chose a traditional Mexican dish, carne asada. The slender pieces of grilled steak arrived with delicately charred edges. Noting the robust selection of seafood dishes, I ordered shrimp fajitas. The sizable shrimp, sautéed with a hefty helping of vegetables, had no trace of the tough, rubbery texture that indicates overcooked shrimp. Soft tortillas and a hearty serving of Acapulco’s rice and beans, made fresh daily, accompanied the dish.

Seafood dishes — including fish fajitas, an unexpected addition — are a hallmark of the menu and reflect Blanca’s upbringing near Guadalajara, an area known for its seafood dishes. “In Mexico, eating fish is a big thing,” Melvin says, and so is eating healthfully. New dishes on the restaurant’s menu (which includes pictures of nearly every dish) include salmon grilled and cooked with vegetables and “Mariscos Landia,” billed as a “healthy plate.” On a subsequent visit for lunch, I tried this dish, which was filling but not overwhelming: grilled shrimp and catfish with sautéed red and yellow peppers, zucchini, squash, and onions. Served piping hot, the fish was flaky and moist, and the chubby shrimp were tender. Blanca’s lifestyle also inspired dishes like this one: “She does a lot of exercise, and she likes to stay healthy,” says Melvin. So she created “To Your Heart,” a low-carb, high-protein entree of grilled chicken cooked with ham and vegetables.

The menu demonstrates the Ortez’s commitment to offering fresh ingredients. “We don’t get anything in cans. We only have a one-door, very little freezer — we don’t use any frozen stuff,” Melvin says. “It costs a little more money, but it’s OK. It’s worth it, and it makes a difference.” Fresh seafood is delivered to the restaurant twice a week. “We probably don’t make any money on fish or shrimp. I think we break even on those items,” confesses Melvin. “But I won’t change the shrimp or the fish just to make more money or save money. The quality is so good.”

Like Blanca, I strive for an active lifestyle. But I also have an active sweet tooth that easily is seduced by desserts such as Fiesta Acapulco’s delicious churros: crispy, fried dough sticks that are popular throughout Latin America. Drizzled with chocolate and strawberry sauce, they’re served over a scoop of fried ice cream. It’s a treat I plan to savor next time I visit Fiesta Acapulco, perhaps on the last Thursday of a month. On these days, the restaurant treats patrons to the spirited sounds of Mariachi Zelaya, an Indianapolis mariachi band whose 12 members hail from Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Puerto Rico.

Despite the dramatic changes the Ortez family made when they built their new restaurant, they still are shaping their American dream. Soon, Melvin hopes to offer weekend specials: “very Mexican” dishes, he says, such as spicy mole soup, and Honduran items such as fried chicken (topped with cabbage and salsa) and deep-fried bananas. One special with staying power? The 99-cent beers and margaritas on Saturdays. “We’ve been doing that for a long time now,” Melvin says with a laugh. “It’s not going to change for a long, long time.”

What to Know:

Location: 8480 High Pointe Drive, Newburgh
Phone: (812) 858-7777
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Web site: www.fiestaacapulco.com
Adult Beverages: Yes
Prices: Average entree is $7-$12
Reservations: Yes
Payment: Major credit cards accepted

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