Carla Meyer

Dining review: Mexican, Italian and more mash up at eclectic Todo Un Poco

The signage out front needs work. So does the lighting inside. The wine list is a disaster. The lunch menu could use an overhaul. The décor has to be tweaked. The dining room in the back is in disarray.

If you think I’m about to go all “Restaurant Impossible” on Elk Grove’s Todo Un Poco, not so fast. The above critique comes not from me but from the owner of Todo Un Poco.

Marie Mertz, who opened this unusual, unpredictable and at times unwieldy restaurant in 1998, is something of a live wire and, as she told me up front, her own worst critic. When I called recently and identified myself, she replied, “Oh, no!” We chatted later – at length – and she began our conversation with a warning: “I talk a lot.” After 52 minutes, including about 90 seconds of monologue from me, I can drink to that.

Turns out, Mertz is many things. So is her lively restaurant, whose name translates from Spanish as “a little of everything.” My experiences over three visits there were also todo un poco, mostly due to the restaurant’s unconventional and often eclectic menu.

Talking to the charming and earnest Mertz – or rather, letting her talk – explained plenty. The restaurant is a statement about who she is. Mertz is creative, exuberant, ambitious, hardworking and, most of all, an unquenchable font of ideas.

“The more I learn, the more I want to cook,” she said at one point. “Thank God I have the name Todo Un Poco.”

It’s certainly fitting. The menu features Mexican and Italian cuisine, and lots of it. There’s a listing of Italian appetizers and entrees, and a separate listing for Mexican appetizers and entrees. There are specialty sandwiches and salads. There’s a burrito bar and a kids menu. Her husband and business partner, Manmeet Singh, is from India, so there is also a smattering of Indian cooking.

As a result, the listing of food is not a menu but an anthology. It includes several excellent dishes, especially the intoxicating chicken mole simmered in a pasilla chile sauce with 14 herbs and chocolate, as well as the coastal shrimp dish camarones a la Diabla, known for its fiery spices. The nachos with chorizo are fantastic. So is the flan.

But this culinary amalgamation also includes clunkers, mostly from the Italian side of things, including the cannelloni with chicken, which has untenable texture and flavor issues, and the chicken and cilantro spaghetti, which is neither Italian nor Mexican but a potentially wonderful culinary hybrid that suffers mostly from an overzealous application of cream sauce.

In addition to penne, fettuccine and lasagna, the menu features pizza – 15 specialty pizzas in three sizes, including one with Mexican mole and another with chile verde. You can get your pizza with a thin crust or thick crust. This is the kind of abundance you’d expect to find at a joint specializing only in pizza. There’s even a Punjabi pizza topped with a blend of cheeses, cauliflower and the seasoning mix known as garam masala.

You can probably guess what’s coming. That’s right – it’s simply too much. A menu this extensive and wide-ranging is too todo un poco for its own good. The gap between the best and worst dishes is too wide.

By contrast, midtown’s savvy and successful Hook & Ladder serves very good pizza, but only has four options. It also has excellent handmade pasta, but again, there are just four options on its menu. Point is, Hook & Ladder knows what it wants to express and that expression has focus. Todo Un Poco wants to say it all, and the banter at times comes across as chaotic.

Todo Un Poco has been embraced by many in and around Elk Grove. And while energy and creativity are important for success, so are restraint and focus. If the exuberant Mertz is the creative good cop, she needs a pragmatic bad cop to say no when the ideas start flying fast and furious. Not every epiphany needs to become a reality.

After speaking with Mertz, I understood how this menu came to be. She is a very hardworking and sincere restaurateur. She waits tables. She guides the kitchen. She’s there day and night, usually on the floor of her restaurant clad in a T-shirt and jeans, a black server’s book tucked in the back of her waistband. She’s also taking a class at UC Davis on wine and going to wine seminars so she can improve the wine list and service. She’s into opera. She loves art. She’s a fan of international food, and her mind races every time she considers new and unusual combinations.

“I go to sleep thinking about food and I wake up thinking about food,” said the diminutive Mertz. “Sometimes when I am running a special, I will make up the specials as I am standing at the table. Then I will go back to the kitchen and tell them how to do it.”

Born and raised in Mexico, Mertz is the daughter of a Mexican mother and German dad. Both were serious cooks. In 1989 after high school, she moved from Guadalajara to Davis and lived with a host family to learn English. She earned an undergraduate degree in international trade at UC Davis. She also studied literature.

When she opened Todo Un Poco, the original idea was to divide the large space into separate restaurants, one featuring Mexican food, the other Italian. But when work on the interior didn’t get done, she decided to do both in one space.

“I love the history of food. I love diversity. A lot of the ingredients are shared. So I said, ‘Why not? Let’s do both,’ ” she explained.

She has always been into the farm-to-fork mindset and often visits local farms to see what is seasonal and fresh.

All of this adds up to a singular restaurant brimming with flavors, sizzling with surprises and oozing eccentricity. But the abundance and inconsistent execution don’t always let us experience Todo Un Poco at its best. While I admire Mertz’s creative vision, I sometimes cannot see what she sees.

I am skeptical that Italian and Mexican cuisines are as compatible as she believes them to be. But if she wants to do it, her creative story might be better told with a menu one-third the size of the existing one. Focus only on what’s really good. The pizzas, for example, could be edited down to a handful with one style of crust (the thicker one is actually quite tasty). The pasta dishes are all over the map, but mostly they demand restraint. The sauce is for coating the pasta, not drenching it.

The small wine list – with vintages from Italy, Spain, France, Argentina and California – isn’t terrible, but the thought of ordering the right wine is. Because the food can be unusual (particularly the Mexican/Italian mashups), it’s difficult to know what a dish’s flavor profile will be and what wines would work best with it. For the wine list to get better, the food and wine explanations from the servers must improve as well.

Todo Un Poco, hidden away in an Elk Grove strip mall, is a gem awaiting polish. If you order wisely, you’re likely to have a fabulous experience. The large room has a funky, festive vibe. The decor, featuring a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) motif as well as several oversized portraits of Mertz and others, is bright and bold and unique. But if you order the wrong dishes, you’re apt to get a less-than-stellar impression of a restaurant that could be – and really should be – stellar more often.

Todo Un Poco

9080 Laguna Main St., Suite 1A

Elk Grove

(916) 684-7774

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Beer, wine and mixed drinks. Excellent sangria.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Gluten-free options: Limited

Noise level: Very loud when crowded

Ambiance Bright and colorful, with plenty of original art

Overall* * 1/2

The vibe, the service, the look of the dining room and several very good dishes here show that Todo Un Poco has the makings to be something special. But the menu, featuring Mexican and Italian cuisines, is too large and unfocused to let this restaurant show its full potential. A very good experience awaits, but you have to be either lucky or savvy to find it consistently.

Food* * 1/2

Wow! Oh boy. Good grief. Take your pick. Many of the Mexican dishes are first-rate, including the chicken mole and the nachos with chorizo. But just as many dishes are lacking, especially on the Italian side of the menu. A smaller, more tightly focused menu could do wonders.

Service* * * 

Mertz and her small team of servers are attentive and personable. More talk about how the wines can work with the food would upgrade this category.

Value* * * 

The portions are large and the prices are competitive. Most of the entrees are priced under $15.