One cuisine that has received its fair share of bad rap in this country is the one south of our border – Mexican. Most of it can be attributed to the mediocre and uninspiring fare served in Tex-Mex restaurant that most of us have eaten as a foray to our experience with this cuisine. However, my introduction to its true authenticity began when I was teaching in a Catholic girls school in Bladensburg, MD. At the bottom of the hill was a fast-growing pocket of Mexican immigrants. Not being too shy to find a good eat anywhere, I asked the locals and they pointed me to a small hole-in-a-wall. It was in this dive that I discovered true Mexican dishes – Mole Poblano, Shrimp Cocktail, Mexican Ceviche, Quesadillas, Enchiladas, Tamales, and exotic drinks like Horchata, Tamarindo, Fruit Shakes and Mexican Sodas (made with real sugar). This experience provided me the opening door to a rich culinary tradition, and I knew that this was a vast territory that I had to explore.
Having received an online offer to El Nopalito Grill, I was excited to try another Modern Mexican restaurant after having discovered Casa Oaxaca (see blog) a couple of months back. It is located at the corner of a rather busy intersection, nestled between several businesses in a strip mall located in the upper reaches of Silver Spring – this MD suburb city is so extensive hence it is easily confused with neighboring cities at the same time. Looking at the restaurant’s online site, I was impressed by the owner/chef’s resumé which reads as a pedigreed culinary training: stints at Le Pavilion, Red Sage, Coyote Cafe, Bistro Provence, Four Seasons Hotel and Filomena, all restaurants that ring a familiar bell to the DC cognoscenti. With a new Spanish teacher colleague in tow, I stepped into El Nopalito Grill with some anticipation and a hungry stomach.
A good indicator of the quality of cooking in an establishment is usually found in the simple things, like chips and salsa. The Nacho Chips were light and almost greaseless, and my dining partner remarked that the Salsa was freshly made judging by the lack of a canned metallic taste or high acidity. It was indeed fresh and filled with small chopped tomato pieces swimming in a slightly sweet tomato sauce spiked with some pungent onions, fragrant cilantro, and searing chiles. Another simple yet telling dip is the Fresh Guacamole. It came prepared a la minute with large chunks of ripe and creamy smooth avocado with bits of sweet onion and seasoned with just salt, very much like how guacamole is simply made in Mexico (the US version tends to come with tomato, cilantro, and lime juice). These dips were very tasty and refreshing, good enough to build up more anticipation for what was to come.
We decided to try out a couple of salads. The first was the Mango and Jicama Salad. Slices of julienned mango and jicama along with thin slices of red onions were sitting on a bed of fresh greens. I enjoyed the combination of the sweet soft ripe mango paired with the rather bland crunchy pieces of Jicama, akin to the texture of pear sans the sweetness. The red onions slices added some sweet pungency to the dish, and the avocado salad dressing was good but not discernible in any special way; perhaps it was overwhelmed by the onion and mango. But it was refreshing indeed and not your typical salad fare. An order of Palmito Salad came with heart of palm rings along with slices of orange on a bed of salad. The elements on the salad felt disparate and even the cilantro dressing could not serve as the liaison between the non-binding ingredients. It was not bad, just ho-hum.
As for our main courses, we made our selections from the Tapas menu. Since my new colleague is a pescatarian, we zoned in on the Ceviche. It came with pieces of marinated fish and shrimp sitting on a bed of lettuce and pickled onions, and topped with thin fried tortilla strips. Although the menu states that the dish comes with jalapeño peppers, I could not see any or taste the spice heat. This flavor profile would have made a difference since the dish carried a one-note acidity which did not elevate the seafood pieces. Furthermore, the use of fish, I suspect Tilapia, was unfortunate as it had a muddy flavor that overwhelmed the whole dish. The pieces of shrimp were plump and sweet and they were pretty much the saving grace in the dish. Realizing that these small missteps in the Ceviche could be overlooked, I knew there were some dishes on the menu that would definitely get my attention.
Another dish suitable for any pescatarian is the Chile Relleno. Traditionally, this dish is filled with a meat or cheese stuffing. However, this restaurant’s rendition takes this humble concoction to another level. The roasted poblano pepper was stuffed with a melange of shredded crabmeat, bits of shrimp and a mild cheese, sitting on a pool of tomato and tomatillo sauce. The slightly piquant and smoky pepper made the perfect partner to the mild, seafood-sweet and rich stuffing that made the dish irresistible to this diner. The well-made sauces provided a slightly sweet and acidic element to each bite, which brought more interesting notes to the whole dish. A definite order in my books.
I ordered the Duck Tamale which is a novel dish for me and an interesting spin on this regular Mexican fare. However, I was later told that the kitchen had run out of it, and I settled for the Chicken version with a certain sense of disappointment. However, the first bite proved to be quite the opposite of a let-down. The steamed white cornmeal was light and fluffy, packed with flavor and studded with bits of crushed fresh corn which brought a slight sweetness and earthiness to the simple dough. The chicken stuffing was shredded pieces that were still moist and well-seasoned. The banana leaf that wrapped the tamale during its steaming had imparted a fragrant vegetal note to the whole dish, and it provided a beautiful design element to the plate. Here, we see another example of the Chef’s ability to take a simple humble dish to a sophisticated level. If this is the Chicken Tamale, I cannot wait to taste the duck version on my next visit.
One dish that called my attention while perusing the menu, and to also satisfy the meat-lover reader, was Beef Carnitas. A thin piece of flank steak came grilled and paired with a trio of yellow, green and poblano mole sauces. The steak was tender, smoky from proper grilling, and rich tasting from some ageing before its visit on the hot grill. The different mole sauces added notes of acidity, salty, sweet, and smoke (dried chile exudes this note) to the already rich-tasting dish. What I appreciate about this dish was the level of care in the cooking of the meat and the delicacy of the different sauces that did not overwhelm the beef. This dish will definitely satisfy the beef lover, despite the small portion which was enough for me, for its wonderful cooking and flavors.
El Nopalito Grill serves authentic Mexican fare that reflects a rich culinary tradition that does not resemble what most Americans are used to or familiar with. Despite a few small missteps in a couple of dishes that we savored, the successful ones point towards a knowledgeable and skillful kitchen that delivers delectable dishes that are well-made and quite sophisticated at times. Here, one senses this ethnic cuisine heading in a new direction that would entice the novice. This restaurant may tempt you to hike up into the suburbs to savor the Mango and Jicama Salad, Tamale, Chile Relleno or the Beef Carnitas. I see another visit for me soon to sample the rest of the menu in the near future.