Already a local favorite in Cincinatti, Nada brings the party to Columbus and fills a niche for upscale Mexican. It's about time.

Already a local favorite in Cincinatti, Nada brings the party to Columbus and fills a niche for upscale Mexican. It's about time.

It was like we'd stumbledinto a secret party. The Arena District was still in winter's icy clutch, but inside Nada, the city's newest Mexican eatery, it was toasty and festive. Every seat at the long bar that curves along the front room was being warmed by an urbanite in riding boots or a beanie. Some were waiting for a table, others noshing on soft tacos.

More pretty people blowing in the door really were there for a party: a millennial-something's birthday celebration under way in the private room off the bar. (Watching diners discover the wall of backlit tequilas is actually a door to the private room makes great while-you-wait entertainment.)

Such conviviality for a Tuesday night.

"De nada" is a way of saying "you're welcome" in Spanish and, in spite of Nada's trendy leanings, I did feel welcome here.

Cincinnati-based chef and restaurateur David Falk and his Boca Restaurant Group already operate three wildly popular spots in Cincy, including the original Nada. The first Columbus location opened in late December-an unseasonable time for margaritas and guacamole, but then again, Nada turns a lot of platitudes about Mexican dining on their ear.

It's a style pioneered by places like Frontera Grill in Chicago (a big influence behind the original Nada concept, Falk has said) and Border Grill in Los Angeles. It was at Border Grill circa 1995 that this Ohio girl, reared on Chi-Chi's and Don Pablo's, first experienced pink pickled onions on my Mexican food-a gourmet garnish on par with pea shoots. Now here they are at Nada, scattered on my Tinga Quesadilla ($9) and adding bright crunch to bites of tender shredded chicken and chorizo, the latter lending cinnamon-like warmth. It's details like these, along with really fresh ingredients, that elevate Nada.

The appeal lies as much in the food as it does in the comfortable, highly stylized atmosphere. With Spanish tile, wood and cement floors, gold brocade wallpaper, splashy yellow florals, red leather banquettes and a mix of rustic and ornate light fixtures, it's part "Royal Tenenbaums," part "Swingers" and part something else I've never seen before.

Boca Restaurant Group handled the design internally, and you can imagine the meetings about chair fabric were just as intense as the ones about what kind of fish to batter for the Baja fish tacos (love the choices on both counts). But they clearly had fun with it. Look closely in the fancy wallpaper or in the yellow fabric on chairs to spot a few hidden elements (we won't ruin the surprise).

The bar menu is fun, too; these are not drinks for drowning sorrows. Choose from beachy cocktails like caipirinhas, mojitos and Mexican mules (which sub tequila for vodka) and popular Mexican and local craft beers, including one rotating local tap. Tequila gets as much real estate as wine with options in every category from blanco to extra-aged. I preferred the mild, honey-sweet Nadarita ($6) to the tart Suprema Margarita ($13), which Tasered my jaw with every sip. I also liked the harmless, slushy Pink Grapefruit Margarita ($10) made with sorbet, and the delayed heat of the Chile-Mango Margarita ($10).

Cold fruity drinks like these were born to go with Nada's warm, salty house-made chips. They're as sturdy as Kettle Chips and flaky as baklava and arrive only when you order from the "Por La Table" section of the menu. Two good dips to sample with them: creamy Guacamole spiked with enough garlic to last you through the drive home ($7 for a small bowl) and Queso ($7), a silky fondue of smoked Gouda with so much smoky depth, you'd swear there's bacon in it. If nothing else, get Nada's fire-roasted tomato ancho salsa with chips for $2.

The kitchen's modern approach is reflected in appetizers such as Papa's Ceviche ($12), a cold salad of chopped shrimp, calamari and salmon on a slick of avocado puree, and the Short Rib BBQ Sopes ($8), two fried masa tarts mounded with shredded barbecue beef, topped with cotija cheese and drizzled with crema.

Mexican reboots continue in entrees like Yucatan Chicken ($17), an airline cut served on charred green beans, caramelized cauliflower and chayote squash with fruity habanero sauce. Under the crackly skin, you get the kind of dense tenderness characteristic of brick chicken. Nada Sliders ($14) let you satisfy a cheeseburger craving without looking like the jerk who ordered a cheeseburger in a Mexican restaurant. Spicy jalapenos give the Angus beef plenty of Mexican personality. Bonus: a side of salty Nada Fries, near-charred chunks of fried potato that take well to a dip in chipotle crema.

But the tacos-that's where Nada gets me. They're among the best in the city.

Our server let us mix and match (they're normally three to an order), so it didn't take long to try all 10 kinds. One by one, they arrived on black walnut planks: warm, cushiony, fragrant flour tortillas cradling two or three fresh ingredients.

Standouts included the Grilled Salmon ($17) with big chunks of salmon, spoonfuls of corn pico and a few stripes of chipotle crema, and the Barbacoa ($16) with tender, shredded beef tossed in a tangy adobo-like sauce. Pork tacos, such as carnitas and pastor, were also very good; toppings are kept simple-a little onion, a little cilantro-to allow the succulent meat to shine. But perhaps my favorite was the sensational Crispy Pork Belly ($15). The pork looks a lot like a plantain that's been sliced length-wise and caramelized-and it's about as thick. Crisp and a little greasy in the best way, it'll make your toes curl.

My piggies were less moved by the vegetarian Hongos Tacos ($14) with portobello mushrooms and not much else, the Arrachera ($17) with chewy rib-eye and the Shrimp ($18), which needed more creaminess, or flavor from a salsa, or to be fried.

These prices may seem steep for three tacos and no sides. For the quality and freshness, it's worth it. Because we mixed and matched, we were charged $5 to $6 per taco, on average. It would be great if the menu were laid out in an a la carte style. Why have three of the same when there are so many good ones to try?

After so many savory, smoky and spicy flavors, an airy stack of fried Churros ($4) rolled in sugar and cinnamon is a sweet way to end, although serving the dipping sauces (chocolate and bananas foster) cold made me scratch my head.

One major grievance: Nada can get loud, especially in the bar, where it's also dark and where we were twice sat, even with reservations. Above the din of indie rock and chair legs protesting on concrete, it was a challenge to chat with tablemates. To Nada's credit, it was never a problem when we asked to move. In fact, we were relocated to one of the best tables-a two-top with those yellow chairs cocked outward in a way that says "welcome."

Mexican dining in Columbus has thankfully evolved from the chimichanga emporiums of the '80s and '90s. Now the city is bursting with authentic taquerias, taco trucks and tequila bars. Still, we lacked a modern, upscale Mexican place, and Nada fills the void quite nicely. I've been recommending it to anyone who asks.