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Mexico Antiguo
Out of a possible five

Cebolla’s serves up a new hit

This place sure looked different.

With its big, rough-cut, rustic chairs complete with sepia-toned photos of old Mexican cowboys and soldiers on the backs, its cobblestone tile floor and its somewhat subdued, dark lighting, Mexico Antiguo Restaurante on Maplecrest Road was nothing like the places that called this building home before. It was two offshoots of Catablu – Blu City Tavern and Blu Tomato – and long ago had the name Ernie’s on the sign out front.

But Mexico Antiguo is just as familiar as those legendary Fort Wayne eateries that preceded it because it is the latest installment from the Cebolla’s restaurant group. Cebolla’s three flagship locations, Don Chava’s downtown and this new one are different in more than just name, too. This latest incarnation might be my favorite in terms of looks.

But the menu is not as unique as the layout and strongly resembles – borderline copies – its sisters. But that was not really a bad thing because I was already a fan of the others.

My first taste of Mexico Antiguo didn’t change my mind, either. The chicken and cheese nachos, dubbed “Speedy Gonzalez’s favorite,” were wonderful. The platter had tender stewed chicken and tomatoes, along with fajita-style onions and peppers atop crispy, fresh tortilla chips. On top of the chicken mixture was a layer of chewy, melted cheese similar to mozzarella, and on and under those chips was a pool of creamy melted queso sauce.

With sour cream, guacamole and a spoonful or two of Mexico Antiguo’s fresh, zesty salsa, these nachos were perfect. I would order them every time I visited from now on.

All of the entrées impressed, but the most impressive things about them might have been the most often overlooked parts – the garnishes. Mexico Antiguo put generous amounts of pico de gallo, sour cream and either guacamole or freshly sliced avocado on each plate, sometimes with some greens and sliced tomato, also.

These tasty additions lifted my ground beef chimichanga from being just a solid offering to something special. The flour tortilla was fried until extra crisp and stayed crisp even under a blanket of queso sauce. The beef inside was perfectly seasoned with the black pepper and cumin being quite prominent, and was joined by just the right amount of cooked tomatoes, onions and peppers.

The Tilapia a La Palapa was a nice light option with a moist fish fillet dusted with spices grilled to form a nice little crust. It was topped with chopped cucumbers, fresh cilantro and an orange slice, which really brightened the fish when squeezed over it. Its grilled vegetable side was the perfect compliment with squash, onions and still-snappy red and green peppers.

Its garnish of dry, plain cabbage and the chipotle tartar sauce, which was way too sweet and not at all spicy, seemed like a waste of plate space – until I asked for some tortillas. By lightly dressing the cabbage with the tartar and sandwiching it in a tortilla with the fish, a little pico and some fresh avocado, I had a wonderful fish taco.

The Enchiladas de Crema and grilled chicken and shrimp entrées were my least favorite, but were still nowhere near unpleasant.

The enchiladas were stuffed with that same chicken from the nachos cooked with tomato, onion and green peppers, the latter of which infused a lot of flavor into the chicken. They were coated in a thick, creamy white sauce that was reminiscent of a béchamel or simply melted sour cream. The sauce, however, added no flavor, and I found myself adding salsa to them.

The shrimp were clearly the star of the other dish as they were plump, sweet and perfectly grilled. The chicken breast was butterflied and pressed, so it was a bit dry, but the cheese sauce over the top, the fresh garnishes and soupy charro beans made up for it nicely.

The desserts were hit and miss with the flan being the biggest hit. This wedge of custard was beautifully plated pointing upward and shining with a glaze of rich, gooey, rum-flavored caramel sauce. The flan was very eggy and one of the best I have had.

The chocolate cake was tasty, too. It offered a variety of textures – creamy whipped icing, thick fudge and super moist cake – and each morsel packed a cocoa punch.

The fried ice cream would have been great had it been fried longer. The crunchy cereal and nut exterior was more chewy than crisp, and the ball of ice cream was still pretty much frozen solid at its core. It was also served in a tiny bowl, which made it impossible to negotiate.

The service at Mexico Antiguo was also hit and miss. During one visit, my server was missing most of the time and was slow to pull off basic tasks promptly. During another visit, my server was spot-on and never missed a beat the entire meal.

Mexico Antiguo Restaurante was more hit than miss, overall. With a new atmosphere that is made to look like old Mexico, the Cebolla’s chain has found its perfect form.

Well, until it opens its next version, which I can only assume will be even better.

Restaurant: Mexico Antiguo Restaurante

Address: 2787 Maplecrest Road

Phone: 485-6601

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes, but many areas with tight quarters

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Chicken and cheese nachos ($6.55), tilapia ($14.09), chimichanga ($8.15), Enchiladas de Crema ($7.99), flan ($3.99), fried ice cream ($3.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.