Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MD

There is something new in my town, Laurel, MD.  This area has constantly surprised me with some pretty good eats, as well as within the township to its south, Beltsville.  So when I noticed that a new restaurant had taken over a seedy bar in the middle of the commercial center, I initially was not so convinced to enter its doors until my BFF told me about his pleasant experience there.  With my curiosity peaked, we both paid Chi’Bal a visit recently, followed by a couple of trips with a couple of friends.

Guava Margarita/Mojito

Walking into the space, one notices that the place went through some serious renovation with a fresh coat of colorful paint, comfortable furniture, and a bar with appealing lights and decor.  Taking our seat at one of the booths, I perused the menu and found it easily navigable despite the dishes’ names in Spanish.  Touted as a “Mexican Tapas and Tequila Bar”, one side was dedicated to the light bites, and the other to complete dishes.  After placing our orders, my friends decided to start their meal with a Guava Margarita and a Mojito, which these aficionados attested to their well-made quality.

Guacamole and Salsa - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ensalada de Jicama - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Guacamole and Salsa are de rigueur in any Mexican establishment, and without fail, an order was placed.  The tortilla chips were the thicker kind, nearly greaseless and lightly covered with some spice seasoning, perhaps some dried chili powder.  The salsa was the blended kind which was a bit liquid but not lacking in flavor and freshness.  But it was the guacamole that impressed me with its slight chunky consistency punctuated with some salt, lime juice, onions, tomato and cilantro – this kept me coming back to it throughout my meal.  The other opener was the Jicama Salad.  Batons of the crunchy root was paired with slices of sweet orange and crisp baby spinach leaves, all brought together by a citrusy creamy peppery vinaigrette that complemented all the different flavors, making it the perfect foil and relief with the other heartier dishes. However, an order of Avocado Ceasar Salad was devoid of the anchovy briny funk and lemon bite which resulted in something unmemorable and rather disappointing.

Chile Relleno - Chi'Bal Restaurant Crab Croquetas - Chi'Bal Restaurant

A couple of breaded items were next up.  A proper Chile Relleno is the litmus test of a good Mexican kitchen and I had to give it try.  Mine was made with Poblano Pepper, grilled until fork tender, stuffed with a creamy but mild Mexican cheese, coated in a beaten egg batter (the authentic way), placed on some smokey red chili sauce and a tangy tomatillo sauce, and topped with some Mexican parmesan-like grated cheese. The gestalt of all the flavors made this very satisfying knowing that it was authentically made and properly cooked.  The other was a twist of a popular dish – Crab Croquetas.  The balls of flaked crabmeat were properly seasoned (fortunately not Bay Spice) and coated by the light Panko breadcrumbs, fried properly without tasting oil-laden.  Even though the bites were quite small, they made it up with their flavors as well as the sauces that went with the seafood – small bites but very satisfying.

Camarones y Chorizo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Camaron - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My waitress recommended Camarones y Chorizo as high on the order list.  The pieces of shrimp were plump and cooked and seasoned perfectly, sitting on pieces of meaty spicy chorizo and sautéed fresh spinach, nappéd with a sauce that was flavorful as it added an unctuousness to the whole combination, and all these wonderful flavors confirmed its high recommendation as it got a nod from everyone at the table.  The other shrimp dish was Pinchos de Camarón.  Skewers of the seafood were well-seasoned and perfectly grilled to produce a non-rubbery bite with a smoky char flavor, which I thoroughly enjoyed when paired the creamy sauce on the side.  This kitchen really knows how to cook seafood with a masterful skill, and both these dishes exemplified talented and knowledgeable hands that produced them.Tacos de Res - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Pollo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

On to the meat tapas.  The first was Tacos de Res.  Soft tacos came with braised beef wrapped in the traditional double-tortilla fashion.  The shredded short rib was moist and tender, and it tasted well seasoned with what looked like some achiote judging from the reddish jus running out of it.  The corn tortilla had its distinctive flavor which added to its authenticity as well as the large slice of creamy avocado. The small meaty bites made for some veritable fulfilling eating that made for some quick disposal.  Pinchos de Pollo are Chicken skewers that looked a bit nondescript upon the plate’s arrival.  But one bite into it took me by surprise.  The meat was well-seasoned and not in a superficial manner, pointing to some maceration before its grilling.  The pieces of meat were still moist especially for breast meat, which is not my choice cut.  But I was enjoying these bites for all the above qualities.

Seared Salmon - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ceviche - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My BFF decided to order a main dish – Pan-seared Salmon.  I was quite surprised by its small size and I refrained from taking a bite of it.  According to him, he was satisfied by his piece of fish seasoned with some house spices (I suspect some red chili powder), and slathered with an avocado aiole.  But I did try the black beans that came with some rice as the sides, and I was impressed with the bean flavors that had a proper salting and a hint of herbs that added interest to this starch – such attention to detail in the supporting actors was also evident in the pickled chilies and pickled onions whose flavors were not overwhelming.  The other fish dish was Ceviche which peaked my interest on the second trip.  The dish was made with only fish (unfortunately), and paired with pickled onions, toasted choclo (Peruvian corn), and, in proper fashion, a piece of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the dish.  But there was a major flaw in the dish – the use of Tilapia which exuded a muddiness to the whole mix that could not be masked by all the acids and flavors.  However, the dish pointed to a rather skillful kitchen that was making a fair attempt at the dish despite this major setback.

Huarache de Pollo Bistec Asado

My final dishes were some meat ones from my last trip there.  The first was Chicken Huarache.  In true form, the dish arrived with a flat grilled cornmeal patty (huarache meaning “slipper”) slathered with some refried beans and topped with some moist shredded chicken, citrusy tomato, Mexican parmesan and a chefy touch of arugula leaves.  The initial cut into the end was a firm and dry piece of cornmeal patty, but it got softer as I progressed into the middle.  I enjoyed all the seasoned elements that had the fresh elements as a counterpoint to the cooked flavors, making this a veritable tasty Huarache.  The last dish was Bistec Asado.  The piece of flank steak was very seasoned (more a marination due to the permeated flavors) and, it came well-grilled.  It was a tad too salty and it was unfortunately well-done, which was overcooked for my taste (the waitress should have asked me my preferred meat temperature).  But I was thoroughly enjoying the unadulterated strong beef flavors in this cut, as well as the citrusy sauce on the side.  For its reasonable price, this is worth an order when in a mood for something on the lines of beef.

Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MDChi’Bal is an exciting place that shows some creative and masterful cooking while maintaining a respect for the culinary traditions.  The level of  kitchen skill can be evident in the treatment of the seafood in which the shrimp are perfectly cooked, which takes some real know-how and acute attention.  Furthermore, more evidences are found in the sides of black beans, as well as the pickled onions and chiles, which tasted house-made and were not overwhelming.  But it is the full flavors found in every bite that impressed me constantly throughout each dish (except the bland Caesar Salad) in the meats found in the taco, the huarache, the grilled flank steak, and the chicken bites.  Even the simple guacamole and jicama salad showed some skill level and thoughtfulness.  The owner told me that he has bought the building and that the business was here to stay – I’m holding his word to it especially when food is this impressive here.

El Nopalito Grill

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.


DSC_8885.jpgWe 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.

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