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No sombreros allowed
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 17, 2010

Sometimes you don’t want just a taco or two, or the usual burrito stuffed with rice and beans as the quickest way to fill you up. Fast food has its place, and Mexican fast food at least will clog your arteries slower than a diet of Big Macs. An alternative is Diego’s, which calls itself “An Atypical Mexican Gourmet Restaurant.”

DIEGO’S | 401.619.2640 || 11 Bowen’s Wharf, Newport | Mon-Wed, 11 AM-Midnight; Thurs + Fri, 11 AM-2 AM; Sat-Sun, 9 AM-2 AM | Major Credit Cards | Full Bar | Side-walk-Level Access

It’s attractively nestled into a little space that a sandwich shop used to occupy just off of America’s Cup Avenue, Newport’s tourist promenade. It’s open till 2 in the morning from Thursday through Sunday, in case any are lost and hungry. In the patio, next to the entrance, wrought iron tables and chairs are ready for warm weather. The place is so small that its restroom is across the patio in another building.

It’s right there on Bowen’s Wharf, where passers-by expect arty nautical photographs, not Acapulco posters or sombreroed nappers. They get the former at Diego’s, plus a sleek and light-flooded room, with tall stools at oak-top tables. A line of chalkboards above the preparation area adds a downscale touch, repeating the printed menu. They used to be BYOB but got their liquor license in January, so an attractive, well-stocked bar has been carved out of one corner. Five beers are on tap, from a blueberry-flavored  to an organic IPA.

The proprietors know that good looks need to impress you before good tastes can. Jumping ahead, that was reinforced when we grabbed a take-out menu. It displayed several large full-color photographs fit for a food magazine: pink and brown slices of steak curling around a sunnyside egg; a wire basket of tortilla chips next to a marble bowl heaped with guacamole. I had to be shaken out of wanting to order something to go.

Since it was cold, we started with their one hot soup ($4/$7), instead of gazpacho. It’s a roasted butternut squash purée, slightly spicy and very delicious. There are many other ways to start, including that mound of guacamole ($12). Their nachos are the same price, with grilled chicken or steak or a vegetarian option. There are two versions of a Mexican-style pizza ($12), one with pineapple salsa. Interestingly, in this litigious era of health warnings about undercooked food, they tempt you with not only steak tartare but also tuna tartare (either $12). That bodes well for confident kitchen conditions.

The meal-sized salads, priced $11 to $14, are interesting. They run from a lobster and avocado “tower,” to ones topped with black-pepper shrimp and mango salad; tuna crusted with sesame seeds and black pepper, alongside scallops in a big tortilla bowl; and with the “spicy catch of the day,” grilled to order. The grilled chicken on something called “The 5th Ward” was moist and plentiful, served over slightly grill-warmed romaine lettuce, tossed with a spicy Caesar dressing and topped with hearts of palm, julienned vegetables, and cute little red tortilla strips.

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