Tried Nuestra Cocina (2135 SE Division) with my wife tonight. It's semi-upscale Mexican without upscale prices. The room is simple and open with large windows on two walls. The counter, where my wife and I chose to sit (there were tables open), is right on top of the chefs. You'll almost certainly carry on a conversation with them if you sit at the counter. Half the time they'll be serving you, too.
The menu is split into three sections (plus a dessert menu): antojitos y ensaladas (small plates -- literally little pleasures -- and salads), caldos y platos (soups and dishes), and otras cositas (other little things). The appetizers range from $4-$7 and include things such as pork tacos, chicharron and salsa, and ceviche. The entrees range from $8-$14 and include things such as chicken in red mole, albondigas, gorditas, and shrimp torta. The sides range from $3-$4 and include things such as refried beans and Mexican rice. The desserts are $5.50 each and include things like fruit crepes, orange flan, and lemon empenadas.
My wife ordered the camarones con recado de tamarindo (grilled tamarind marinated prawns, $7) for her appetizer. They were grilled in shell with the legs still attached as well. On the side was a decent portion of jicama salad and a green chile salsa. There were about half a dozen medium-sized prawns covered in the crusted sauce. They were a pain in the ass to peel (ultimately a mistake, I think; they need to figure something out), but had a good flavor.
I had the sopes de chorizo, frijoles, y chile arbol (round corn flour cakes filled with black beans and Mexican sausage topped with salsa, $5). Three good sopes -- the texture and flavor of the masa was nice. The beans were good and the chorizo decent. They don't make their own chorizo and I think it can be improved. But overall they were quite good and a very good value. You'd get less sope per dollar at many good taquerias in town.
For her entree, my wife ordered the huachinango (red snapper, $14). It was nicely cooked in banana leaves with poblanos. That description isn't adequate, though. There were other flavorful bits and a nice jus flowing from the interior of the banana leaf. The fish had no off flavor and was tender and juicy. It was served with a cilantro sauce on the side and nicely roasted potatoes.
I had the cochinita pibil (slow-cooked seasoned pork, $13). They braise theirs and I'm not sure if they use the traditional banana leaves, but it had a nice flavor, was a huge portion, and was very tender. They serve it on beans and top it with pickled red onions.
For dessert, my wife had a special, the carmelized plantains with vanilla bean ice cream. It was decent, but they need to add a sweeter layer of carmelization to the plaintains. They were very starchy and the vanilla ice cream wasn't enough to balance that. The texture was nice, but as they cooked it, bananas would have worked better.
I had the pastel de chocolate con helado de canela (chocolate cake with cinnamon ice cream). The cinnamon ice cream was very good. The chocolate pound cake was pretty good too, but I prefer a moister chocolate cake. But note, I'm not inclined to like chocolate cakes at all. I prefer things like molten chocolate cakes. I got this for the ice cream. However, they could have iced or sauced the cake a bit to help me out. The plate was sauced with caramel, but not a lot.
Overall, though the desserts and dessert menu looks better than most Mexican places and fits in with places of a similar style.
I'm very encouraged by this place. Its closest competitor is clearly Taqueria Nueve. The prices are similar and the style is similar. I'm not sure which is better yet.
This place reminds me of Malanga a bit -- an attempt to lighten and refine Latin comfort foods a bit. But this place succeeds because the flavors and textures are there. I think Diana Kennedy could eat here and not be disappointed. I'd like to eat here and then Taqueria Nueve. I get back from California in a 10 days, so anyone up for it, I'm already game.