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Chow lunch at El Tapatio--thumbs up!

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Chow lunch at El Tapatio--thumbs up!

zora | May 21, 2004 05:37 PM

Tod Kliman got it right about El Tapatio—if it were in L.A., it would be a simple neighborhood place in any one of dozens of Mexican neighborhoods—nothing special. But since it is in our neck of the woods, it is very special indeed. For the ‘hound from Chicago who posted a couple of weeks ago, looking for an authentic, inexpensive Mexican café, here it is. Plastic tablecloths, sombreros and beer signs on the bright purple walls, and banda on the jukebox.

Today, on short notice, it was just Marty L, Roe and me. Marty and I were late, and Roe had already eaten a couple of tacos before we got there, so we couldn’t really explore the menu in great depth. What we did have was all good. Not sublime, mind you. But it was the real deal. Finally!

We started with the complimentary chips and salsa. The chips were thick and salty and an unusually yellow color, but fresh-tasting and not oily. There were two salsas—one of ground fresh tomatoes was lightly spicy, but not watery like many table salsas in local restaurants. The other was a bright red hot chile salsa, probably commercially produced. Marty and I shared a taco de birria de chivo. It was tender and juicy with a pronounced but not unpleasant goat flavor, lightly spiced with chile broth. Nothing approaching the rich, dark stew at Guelaguetza, my favorite Oaxacan place in L.A., but I would order this again. We shared three main courses—chicken in mole poblano, carnitas, and fried quail with salsa verde. Amazingly, the boneless chicken was not dry and overcooked! The portion was fairly small, and the mole was simple, and a bit unbalanced in the ratio of sweet versus spicy, but I found myself mopping it up with tortillas after the chicken had all been eaten. The carnitas was a generous portion of flavorful, thickly sliced roast pork with a bit of succulence and a bit of crispiness. Rolled into tortillas with a spoonful from the mound of pico de gallo on the plate, and some of the spicy salsa, it was very satisfying. The fried quail was a new one for me. The little birds had been cut in half and deep fried without batter or crumbs. When the richly flavored, cooked salsa of tomatillos, green chile and onion was poured over them, they were very tasty, crispy nubbins to gnaw on. The sides were red rice and frijoles de olla. The plates were otherwise unadorned, except for the carnitas platter, which had a chunk of lime and a slice of avocado. The pinto beans were plain; I prefer frijoles refritos, but these beans couldn’t be faulted. The rice was fluffy, nicely cooked, but ultimately irrelevant. A generous basket of small, warm, house-made tortillas was provided—made, though, from masa harina, not fresh masa. Good, but not sublime.

Marty and I both had horchata (cinnamon-vanilla flavored rice beverage), which was good, but had the slightly bubble-gum flavor that I associate with commercial horchata mixes. They also have Mexican beer.

It’s clearly a family operation, with Mom and Pop in the kitchen, and a home-cookin’ aura about it. The food is good. And it is authentic Mexican food in an unpretentious, sit-down restaurant. And IMHO, that is cause to rejoice.

Marty and I stopped by La Serinita afterward, to check out the menu. It is a larger place, with a bigger kitchen and numerous cooks. Looks like another visit to the Hyattsville area is brewing. In the little Latin market next door, I found fresh epazote, an herb used in cooking beans, and another fresh green called huauzontles, which I had never before seen. I looked it up in Diana Kennedy’s most recent book, and she provides a photo and describes huauzontles as “(Chenopodium berlandiere spp. nuttalliae) a native plant of central Mexico…a popular Lenten food, now cultivated and available the year around…it is one of my favorite greens with its intense ‘green’ flavor and interesting texture” (_From My Mexican Kitchen_). Based on other photos in the book, the store also had two greens called quintonil and romeritos. No fresh masa, though, only piled-up sacks of Maseca, which is ubiquitous in area Latin markets.

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