Wild Rita's dining room (Photo by Steve Coomes)

Wild Rita’s dining room
(Photo by Steve Coomes)

If you dined at Mozz before it imploded 18 months ago, there are enough decorative vestiges to trigger feelings of familiarity at the newly opened Wild Rita’s, the third restaurant to open in the 455 E. Market slot since Primo made a run in 2008.

Layout is largely the same: the open kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven remain, and the semi-private dining space with street view up front is still walled and located about 20 feet from the long, modern bar.

What once was Mozz’s underwhelming mozzarella bar is now minimized to just seats, and the dramatic glass sculptures and lights scattered about the space are still in place, fixed reminders of what once was but never fully lived up to chef and co-owner Matthew Antonovich’s fantastical, cost-be-damned vision.

With the help of Swope Design Group, Wild Rita’s owners have updated the place with bright colors and new carpet that reflects the restaurant’s casual theme. Gone are the tablecloths and side-racked wine bottles that formed a wall dividing Mozz’s mozzarella bar and main dining room. It’s a nice looking space that will more than suffice in its duty of pairing modern-Mexican food with clever cocktails and scads of tequila.

Photo courtesy of Wild Rita's

Photo courtesy of Wild Rita’s

What’s immediately different are the aromas of simmering guajillo peppers and searing pork fat. Any aromatic garlic comes cloaked in citrus and caramelized onions rather than simmering, acidic red sauce.

Oh, and this is strikingly different: co-owner’s J.D. Rothberg’s beard and hair. That he’s grown them out surely was something few thought possible during his Napa River Grill ownership days. Back then the serious and supercharged Rothberg was shaven to a sparkle like Mr. Clean.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to change it up some,” Rothberg said.

Business was bustling Wednesday night as guests heartily drank clever cocktails done up by bartender Levi Donaldson. The barrel-aged margarita is fantastic (don’t mind the minuscule black flecks of barrel char in the glass, they add flavor) as is the cockily named Most Interesting Drink in the World. The combination of Dos Equis, Falernum (a Caribbean cocktail syrup flavored with honey, cloves and allspice) grapefruit and sage is superb, poured tall for extended sipping and presented with the remaining beer in a bottle for topping off.

Executive chef Tony Efstratiadis’s food is brightly seasoned and well spiced, yet approachable by anyone who even remotely likes good Mexican food. (Don’t come expecting beans and rice fare or sizzling fajita platters, this ain’t the place.) As part of a press dinner, our group tasted a lot:

  • ceviche (terrifically fresh and lightly fiery)
  • guacamole (fresh and unctuous)
  • white queso dip (garlicky and smooth)
  • mussels con chorizo (delicate and delicious)
  • Mexican pizza (really nice masa crust)
  • camarones al ajo (Efstratiadis faux-bristled at a tablemate’s mention that it was a Mexican twist on American shrimp and grits, but that’s the way it played)
  • molcajetes (an earthy, spicy and big stew that could easily serve two)
  • adobo-spiced pork shoulder (an easy feed for two, meaty and garnished with a fried egg)
  • chuleta masiva (a dramatically presented pork rib cut containing the chop and the belly that easily could feed three)

Clearly, no one could sample it all, so as various tacos made the rounds I listened for and heard plenty of approval. Same for a dessert flan (I did taste that, amazing) and churros and a chocolate lava cake (warm and oozing).

The show stealer for the me was the tequila and mezcal presentation. Purists may deem it over the top, but it’s hard to criticize the effort for its sheer enthusiasm and uniqueness.

Ask for flights and you’ll get three to four caballitos (small, cylindrical shot glasses) filled with your spirits choices. Alongside that comes a painter’s palette with multiple, decoratively arranged salts (including a delicious one made with smoked, ground maguey worms), lime and pineapple wedges.

Sure, do the “salt, lime and shoot” routine if you want to. But since pineapple is the only flavor on the plate echoed in tequila or mezcal, I’ve never seen the point of that flavor mashup. I like to understand the spirit and dissect its flavors, so I took mine straight and savored them slowly.

Outside of margaritas, most Louisvillians make little fuss over these made-only-in-Mexico spirits. But mark my word, five years from now, serious bourbon drinkers will be hooked on one or both, and you’ll see their popularity soar. That’ll be in no small part due to how Wild Rita’s is taking the lead in promoting them. And if other Mexican restaurant operators are sharp, they’ll start pushing theirs, too.