If the old rule is true about the quality of a restaurant being directly proportional to the condition of its restrooms, then downtown’s Mexi-merican newcomer Nada has set a new industry standard. These baños seem to take design cues from the lobby of some four-star resort on the Sea of Cortez, the floors an elaborate pale-blue mosaic set amid thousands of tiny white subway tiles, the walls papered in loud vintage floral patterns. Each stall has its own crystal-dripping light fixture and solid-wood door to make it feel like you have stepped into a tiny Victorian powder room. And if you look closely at those brown and green pin lights in the wall of the ladies room, you will see that they are actually the tips of entire Dos Equis beer bottles embedded in the plaster—the other ends poking out behind a booth in the dining room. The original plan was to incorporate a single clear-glass bottle that you could peer through, periscope-style, into the other room. But the view turned out too blurry, which is probably a good thing for people who enjoy eating their food before it gets cold.
There are many distractions at Nada—a lot of decorative eye candy competing with the lineup of Vallarta-by-way-of-Vegas dishes. A flight of guacamoles includes one topped with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds and another served poke-style with glistening cubes of raw tuna. A selection of self-aware tacos takes up prime real estate on the menu. Their fillings range from rich carnitas with pickled onions playing off the fatty meat to braised short rib tucked into the tortilla with whipped potatoes and horseradish to a simple, perfect Baja fish rendition featuring little more than battered hake with some pico and lime cabbage.
The corporate owners—Cincinnati-based Boca Restaurant Group—wanted every corner of this “high-energy, chef-driven” concept to tell a story. A communal table in back has fancy upholstered chairs that channel family supper after church. The pale blue–washed walls of three cubby-hole booths toward the front of the 8,500-square-foot space were inspired by an old door someone on the design team found in Mexico. Another clamshell booth sits on a raised platform with good sightlines of the bar, but the table fits into a dark recess in the wall—a nice cover for voyeurs who want to sit back with a prickly-pear margarita and keep tabs on the action. “We kept coming up with these little vignettes,” says Boca vice president Jono Fries, who also oversees the two other locations in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. Fries helped lay out the Indy space, which includes plenty of red, diner-style banquettes, a bar that glows golden like a chunky bottle of tequila, and an open kitchen bustling with a staff helmed by chef Eric Seabolt, an Ohio transplant and Nada veteran.
The Boca creatives designed Indy’s Nada to convey an instant vacation for patrons on this bustling strip of West Maryland Street, beginning with the exterior’s clean-lined facade that features the restaurant’s name in colorful lowercase letters on polished slats of wood. The look registers as sleek, hip, and … vaguely Polynesian? “We wanted this to be an escape,” Fries says. “The colors are vibrant. The flavors are soulful. It’s meant to be fun.”
One evening, my table of four devoured an entire cheat-day still life of gooey, starchy things served in miniature cast-iron pans and earthen crocks.
They knew what they were doing. This kind of buzzy, wall-of-sound packaging beckons to conventioneers and special-events traffic—precious commodities in downtown Indianapolis. Flights of fresh salsa, smoked-gouda Queso Gringo spiked with habanero, and decadent macaroni and cheese are catnip for the per-diemed lanyard set as they relax with fruity cocktails like the Pink Grapefruit, a mix of El Jimador blanco tequila and small-batch sorbet—nothing bracing enough to get HR involved.
One evening, my table of four devoured an entire cheat-day still life of gooey, starchy things served in miniature cast-iron pans and earthen crocks. Mex’orean Fried Chicken—Nada’s version of ultra-crisp, delicate-skinned Korean fried chicken—had the crunchy sheen that comes from the traditional batter and double-fry, but the thick and craggly crust flecked with salt flakes (first dusted in a spiced flour blend followed by a secret-formula batter that contains vodka) showed some Southern influence, as well. Grilled salmon arrived on an impressively composed bed of corn and fregola sarda (a pasta similar to couscous). Diablo sauce drenched three tender braised-chicken enchiladas. And the Mexican Poutine layered crispy hunks of red potatoes with barbacoa and liquid cheese, with tomatillo salsa and the warm yolk of a fried egg adding to the general gloppiness. Nothing short of Elizabethan collars would have kept us from shoveling every last bite of this Mexican-Canadian-Midwestern mash-up into our mouths. As far as meals go, this one was a romp. When it was all over, one of us delivered the most fitting one-sentence review of Nada that you’ll ever hear: “Well, I think I like it better than Bakersfield.”
The comparison is inevitable. Nada joins that busy Mass Ave tacos-and-tequila mini-chain (also a Cincinnati original) in buying the Indianapolis market a round of shots. This trend does not appeal to supporters of local food or anyone trying to run an independent restaurant here. On the bright side, maybe we owe the Queen City a debt of gratitude for recognizing its Indiana neighbor as the Good-Time Charlie for all business expansions—“Go west, young franchisee.” The difference is that Bakersfield makes a play for covetable grit, with its corrugated-metal walls, tattooed bartenders pouring Buffalo Trace Manhattans, and bathrooms that definitely do not feel like a luxury timeshare. Bakersfield is barely trying to win our affection, whereas Nada could not try harder.
Fries describes Nada’s culinary direction as Mexican cuisine with traditional French, Italian, and Asian influences. “We didn’t want to follow rules,” he says. That combination might come through in dishes like gingery mu shu tacos and a shrimp-and-corn tamal drenched in crema as rich and complex as any of the Mother Sauces. But really, Nada has simply taken traditional Mexican food and made darned sure that it pleases every palate. You can call that fusion if you want, but it would be more accurate to call it the way people eat now—with their focus mostly on the big, pretty picture. And Nada is quite an eyeful.