Latin culture from Cuba to Spain is rolled up, tossed together and offered to diners in one big celebratory fiesta at El Meson, a restaurant on the south edge of Dayton, Ohio. The assault on your senses starts as soon as you cross the threshold. In the waiting area, Spanish knickknacks compete for space with a huge fish tank and tchotchkes for sale. Servers in riotous shirts of orange and turquoise scamper about. Chili pepper Christmas lights and brightly colored wall art festoon the bar one room over.
For a pure panoply of color and texture, the place to be is the patio/sunroom on a summer afternoon. Vines grow rampant from a small fountain across the glass roof of the open-air patio. With striped umbrellas, lively murals and a laid-back crowd, the effect is transporting, and the food follows suit. First to the table is a spicy salsa called aji served with house-made bread. Most entrees come with small, fresh salads, yellow rice and black beans, ensuring that every plate is loaded with color. El Meson is an equal-opportunity Hispanic purveyor, which means you'll find a churrasco strip steak drizzled with chimichurri sauce alongside coconut shrimp and a Jamaican pork burrito. Dinner dishes tend to be pricey ($20 to $30 for most entrees), so go at lunch when you can get an eyeful, and a bellyful, on a budget.