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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.