The Takeaway: IC’s new Salvadorian restaurant proves Mesa can do more than pizza

Photos by Tiffani Green, collage by Jordan Sellergren

If the name Mesa 503 rings a bell, it might be because it’s the sister business of Mesa Pizza, an Iowa City institution for over a decade. Owners Yolanda Amaya and Luis Hernandez immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1993 and have made visits back home every year, always looking forward to revisiting the food. Though they got their start in the restaurant business serving up unique pizzas, at home they’ve continued cooking the recipes from their native country, perfecting them and noting their favorites in the hopes of being able to share those flavors with Iowans one day.

That day has arrived. Mesa 503 opened in May in a little shopping area situated between Hy-Vee and Kum and Go on Muscatine. The interior is painted a bright blue with an outline of El Salvador and bright paintings adorning the walls. You’re likely to be greeted at the counter by Amaya, Hernandez or one of their children, and you can watch them at work in the open kitchen. Their pride and excitement at getting to share Salvadoran food with people who haven’t tried it before is palpable.

The ubiquity of Mexican food can lead some to believe that they know what Central and South American food is like. Though you’ll see names and ingredients on Mesa 503’s menu that are familiar — like enchiladas and tamales — this food is distinct in its flavors and presentation.

Mesa 503’s menu is large and features appetizers, a la carte items, sides, large plates and even breakfast options. There are also clearly marked vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. You can create whatever eating experience you’d like, whether that’s getting a single entrée, which comes with rice, tortillas and a salad, or ordering a range of smaller items to try.

I’m definitely a lover of trying lots of things at once, so I went the small-plate route. I ordered a pork rib tamale, rice and beans, chicken enchiladas and two different types of pupusas. The tamale was rich and moist, and the pork was so tender it fell apart. The rice and beans were not dissimilar to what I’ve come to know via Mexican restaurants, but with one important distinction: they were combined together, which made my day. I always mix rice and beans together when I get them, but you usually have slightly more of one then the other or don’t quite get the ratio right when mixing them. Serving them as a composed dish meant evenly distributed rice and beans in every bite. For those who like them separate, they are also available as individual items.

The pupusas and enchiladas were the two items that really took me into brand new territory. Pupusas are stuffed corn flour discs made with white masa harina. Mesa 503 offers nine different filling options — I chose the cheese and jalapeño and the cheese and chorizo versions. They came with a slaw-like mix of pickled cabbage and carrots and a tomato-based sauce that has a hint of spice and a lot of tomatoey sweetness; think the way a warm grape tomato tastes right out of your garden. Layered on top of the pupusa, the veggies and sauce balance the richness of the cheese, meat and dough and make for a really balanced bite with complex flavor. They are also the perfect size to get you full but not too full.

The enchiladas were completely unlike their Mexican counterparts. They were composed of fried corn tortillas that are both smaller and thicker than the ones I was familiar with, and they are layered with chicken, cubed potatoes, crunchy cabbage and cucumber, tomatoes, a slice of boiled egg and a sprinkling of cheese. All the fresh veggies made the dish light, not too meat-forward, and gave the dish great texture, much like the eating experience of a particularly hearty salad or a really good hummus plate.

Mesa 503 takes ingredients we all know and love — beans, cheese, tortillas — and forms them into dishes that feel both familiar and distinctive, like when a new musician puts their spin on a timeless song. Visit this Mesa sibling and experience the melody yourself.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 308.