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B.A. Nilsson

Saved From the Bell
By B.A. Nilsson

Leon’s Mexican Restaurant

35 Crescent St., Saratoga Springs, 587-2346. Serving Wed-Mon 11-10. AE, MC, V.

Food: * * * *
Service: Friendly

Ambiance: Welcoming

I noted with some despair that on a popular Internet site, which allows you to rate area restaurants by category, many users insist on the superiority of Taco Bell. Or, it being the Internet, it could be one user returning in many guises. Still, that preference is shared by many—the chain continues to thrive—and the cause of Mexican food is wretchedly served.

Like other countries whose cuisine becomes popular in the States, Mexico’s varied and fascinating way with food has been reduced to a few signature items. It’s not surprising, then, that those items would make their way down the food-service chain to Taco Bell. Leon’s Mexican Restaurant, open since July, goes a long way toward reclaiming that cuisine.

Although I’ve seen more adventurous menus in other markets—Manhattan, especially—this goes a long way to stamping Mexican fare with an individual personality. In this case, it’s the personality of Filiberto Leon, whose previous visits to Saratoga Springs have been in the company of horses. Leon spent many years as an award-winning jockey, with last year’s Aqueduct Broadway Handicap among his recent triumphs. Although he hasn’t officially retired from racing, owning a restaurant certainly demands full-time attention. And he’s also the chef.

“He used to do that 10 years ago, before he started racing,” his mother-in-law, Mary Morse, explained. “And he takes a lot of pride in the fact that everything here is homemade. Chips, salsa, cheese sauce—no mixes. We make fresh guacamole, and you should see how many avocados we go through trying to find the right ones.”

It’s a family operation, with wife Roberta and both of her parents on the floor. They took over what used to be Barney’s Townhouse, a pizza place on Crescent Street, not far from the track. After considerable refurbishment inside and out, they opened the first day of last summer’s flat-track meet. “We did well then, and we’re still doing very well,” says Morse.

It’s a large, comfortable space with a bar and surrounding tables in one room and a more formal (but still casual) dining area in another. Service, once it properly got rolling, was attentive, with members of the family always available to check on your needs.

While my foursome haggled over drinks and entrées, I ordered a plate of fajita supreme nachos ($11). It’s the fanciest of several nachos plates, beginning with chips and melted cheese ($6) and adding beans ($7), chicken or beef ($9) and, ultimately, a platter with all of the above as well as the cilantro-rich sauce pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. Unlike the jumble of chips and cheese typically passed off as nachos, this is an attractive serving in which each chip is carefully topped. The accompanying guacamole is a refreshing reminder how this avocado dip should be prepared, and it’s something I wanted to savor separately, so I wish our server hadn’t whisked away what remained of the basket of chips we were served as we sat.

Speaking of which, those chips are prepared in the restaurant, indicative of the care that goes into the preparation. Salsa and a surprisingly light cheese sauce are served alongside, and a dish of spicier salsa was presented upon my request.

Other appetizers include a “Mexican pizza” ($10), in which a flour tortilla is topped with salsa and cheese, taquitos ($9), a kind of Mexican egg roll, and botana ($13), a sampler that includes quesadillas.

Entrées include a number of items named for thoroughbreds, as well as separate sections detailing fajitas and seafood items. Among the entrées: deep-fried, cheese-filled Anaheim peppers ($15), marinated rib-eye steak ($16), quesadillas with beef or cheese ($15) and grilled chicken topped with cheese and grilled onions ($12), all served with rice and beans.

We went traditional with a burrito—the “Dixie Luck,” an eight-inch tortilla filled to bursting with chicken and rice and a pleasant mix of seasonings ($12), served with ranchero sauce and covering most of the plate.

More complex flavors come through the pork and green chili combo ($13), in which suitably tender pork tips are served in a sauce that’s not at all spicy but rich with peppery sweetness. With a side of soft tortillas, you can make your own sandwiches that also include the accompanying rice and beans.

Pollo Oaxaca ($13) is a large portion of grilled chicken breast served over rice and covered with ranchero sauce, which includes green chiles and tomatoes. Monterey jack cheese is melted on top and sour cream is alongside, so it’s deceptively rich.

All told, a satisfying array of dishes. But I’d love to try less common fare, like a good mole. We finished with two desserts: a good, representative flan and a serving of fried ice cream that had an earlier date with the fryer and was rechilled. With dark Dos Equis on tap and an extremely friendly staff, there’s no doubt we’ll be back.

Dinner for four, with tax and tip, a couple of beers and desserts, was $85.


If you’re planning to attend the Clark Art Institute’s “A Postcard from Algiers” party on Feb. 15, note that several Williamstown, Mass.-area restaurants are offering preparty specials that day. Eleven (413-662-2004) and Gramercy Bistro (413-663-5300) in North Adams, Mill on the Floss (413-458-9123) in New Ashford, and three Williamstown eateries, Hobson’s Choice (413-458-9101), Mezze (413-458-0123) and The Orchards (413-458-9611), offer prix-fixe meals ($20-$40) exclusive of tax and tip. Mention the Clark party when making the required reservation. The party itself features Algerian-inspired decor, entertainment and activities. And you’ll get a look at the Renoir and Algeria display that officially opens Feb. 16. For more info, call the Institute at (413) 458-2303 or visit . . . Sperry’s Restaurant (30½ Caroline St., Saratoga Springs) now serves a Sunday brunch from 10 to 2. Eggs Benedict, eggs Oscar, homemade corned beef hash and other traditional brunch items will be served, along with lunch items and specials. For more info, call the restaurant at 581-2891. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail (


(Please fax info to 922-7090)

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ. Food Rating Key: * * * * * An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. * * * * Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. * * * Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. * * A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.

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