Chi’Bal

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.

Highlights 2016

Despite a rather tumultuous year, personally, professionally, and politically, I managed to squeeze in some great restaurant finds during my moments of respite.  Here is a quick rundown of the top dishes that I sampled throughout the year. Happy New Year 2017!

1. Thai Orchid (read Blog)

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Seafood Prik Prao

Seafood Prik Prao

2.Taqueria Los Primos (read Blog)

Tacos Al Pastor/Carnitas

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Quesadillas

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3. Chez Dior (read Blog)

Thiebou Diene

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish

Accra/Black Eye Pea Fritters

Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

4. Panda Gourmet (read Blog)

Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

5. Evolve Vegan (read Blog)

Southern Fried Chick-un/Yams/Sweet Maple Kale Salad

Fried Chick-un

Raw Chocolate Cheesecake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

6. Woomi Garden (read Blog)

Jap Chae

Jap Chae

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

7. Great Sage (read Blog)

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

8. Jerusalem Restaurant (read Blog)

Hannet – Stewed Lamb

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

Makdous/Stuffed Eggplant

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, Garlic

9. Swahili Village (read Blog)

Grilled Goat, Beef, Chicken, Chapati Bread, Collard Greens, Spinach, and Rice Pilaf.

Group Platter - Swahili Village

Samaki Wa Nazi/Fish in Coconut Sauce Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

10. Yekta Kabobi (read Blog)

Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob

Chicken Soltani Beef Kabobs

Bastanee Nooni/Saffron Ice-cream Wafer

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

11.Baan Thai (read Blog)

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Northern Thai Pork Curry

Northern Thai Pork Curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading my blogs throughout 2016. Happy Eating in the New Year!

Taqueria Los Primos

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Death of an opportunity always opens another.  Such occurrence took place in a spot in between a Motel 6 and a Thrift Store in North Laurel where a former restaurant/bar perhaps resided – my lack of recollection only points to its nondescript existence.  A couple of months ago, my BFF called me exuding about a new Taqueria in our “hood”.  It was no surprise to me that such an eating establishment would open, as this is only a mere representation of the new make-up of the burgeoning Latino population in this township.  With an anticipation for such cuisine, I paid Taqueria Los Primos a few visits to sample their offerings.

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Walking into the wide space, one is confronted by a large order counter with a expansive menu displayed above.  It can be daunting for the novice to the menu, but many visits to other authentic area Mexican restaurants prepared me in navigating this Latino cuisine.  An order that such friend was raving about was Quesadillas.  The stuffed tortillas arrived well-grilled with the right amount of char providing that smokey note.  What it encased was a generous amount of Mexican mozzarella-like stringy cheese accompanying some chunks of cooked beef, and thankfully, not ground beef like in some establishments, which my friend was really enjoying his bite on this occasion.  A similar order on another visit was a bit disappointing with the lack of char on the tortillas, and an overwhelming amount of cheese.  Our drink orders during our many visits were the perfect thirst quenchers consisting of Jarritos (Mexican sodas made with real sugar and fruit essence), house-made Rice Milk (Horchata), Tamarind Water (Tamarindo), and Hibiscus Water (Jamaica).  These non-bottled drinks were both tasting recently-made and the perfect balance of the ingredients along with the right amount of sugar without being cloyingly sweet.  A healthier choice is fresh Carrot or Orange Juice made to order and tasting naturally sweet.

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Flautas are popular in Mexican taquerias and I had to taste their version. My plate arrived with 4 stuffed crispy tacos inundated by a mound of toppings consisting of lettuce, tomato, sweet onions, all slathered with some crema (Mexican sour cream) and crumbled cheese, that hinted of both Parmesan and blue cheese. A bite into the first flauta caused me to pause.  The crispy corn tortilla encased a chicken stuffing that was dry and stringy, an indication of overcooking or over-frying.  The second roll fared much better and injected more assurance in this diner.  The dark chicken meat was fairly moist and well seasoned, making each bite enjoyable especially with the different toppings that added more moisture and flavor.  The side of refried beans was as good as it gets, tasting velvety smooth and properly seasoned, good enough to belie its true humble nature.  A side order of Nopales, grilled cactus, was revelatory to me.  The leathery paddles exuded some good char flavor along with its slightly bitter natural notes, and with a good squeeze of lime (all limes pieces were necessary), the acid made each strip quite enjoyable and palate provoking, this tasting different (and better in my mind) from the usual pickled version.

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Along with the first dish above, my BFF had also raved about the tacos offered here.  My order one day was made with Carnitas and the other Al Pastor.  One bite into the Carnitas one blew me away instantly.  The pieces of pork were perfectly seasoned and cooked while maintaining some of its moisture and porcine goodness.  The highlight to these meaty bites was the skin cooked to a crisp that gave some crunchy interest and its amazing bacon-like goodness.  The Al Pastor ones were fairly tasty with the thin slivers of seasoned meat made red with some coloring probably from the achiote seed.  However, it lacked the burnt meat flavor that the former exuded.  The topping of fresh pineapple was interesting that made these bites more intriguing.  The side green and red chile sauces were more than adequate with the green one lending some spicy fruity acid flavors and the red one some salty smoky dried chili notes, both elevating these soft tortilla bites to another level.

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A couple of stuffed sandwiches caught the eye of my companions. Burritos here come large and well-stuffed.  My companion’s order was made with chicken, paired with rice, beans, and fresh elements of lettuce and tomato, all moistened by a light creamy sauce.  He seemed content with this large bite despite the fact that he is not a fan of the starch fillers.  Another companion’s order was from the large sandwich menu.  His order was the Cubano, which is strange for a Mexican eatery.  The behemoth bite came loaded with slices of grilled meat, grilled sliced sausage, a fried egg, and lightened by some sliced lettuce, and spiced by some pickled jalapeño slices.  Not quite a traditional Cubano, but my friend had no real complaints except for its overwhelming size.

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A couple of open-face dishes were also sampled.  The first was Huarache, consisting of a crispy cornmeal cake slathered with the silky smooth refried beans (its name is attributed to its slipper-like appearance), topped with a choice protein and the usual suspects of toppings and flavors.  What I enjoyed sampling in this dish for the first time was the corn flavor in the cake with its mealy texture, and the small chunks of grilled Cecina beef which tasted well-aged from its hanging after a marination of salt and lime juice. For a first-time, this dish hit the right notes for me.   A friend’s order during one visit was Tostadas.  It pretty much was the same make-up as the latter dish, but the base consisted of crispy tacos holding the elements together, topped by some perfectly ripe avocado.  The refried bean on the crispy rounds unfortunately softened their crispiness quite quickly, which disappointed the eater.  But the choice of the awesome Carnitas with its crispy skin helped my friend overlook this slight downfall.

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My visits were made on the weekends, and I noticed that many customers ordered the Mexican perennial, Menudo.  The bowl arrived with its achiote-stained red soup submerging big pieces of the stomach floating and chucks of bone.  One taste of the soup revealed a tasty broth but there was a hit of funkiness from that part of the cow.  The toppings contributed some onion sweetness and crunch, the cilantro herbaciousness, and good amount of lime fruit acid that helped to temper with off-notes in the soup.  The pieces of offal were well cooked making them smooth and falling apart fairly easily in the mouth.  However, after half way through this bowl, I had enough of this cut of meat even though I grew up eating it, albeit with a much smaller quantity.  All in all, I appreciated this well-made bowl supposedly with its flavors strong enough to cure a severe hangover.

Everything about Taqueria Los Primos is puro mexicano, from the large Latino clientele that patronize this establishment on the weekends, to the Virgen de Guadalupe statue adorning the wall next to the jukebox pumping out loud ranchera music.  But the star of this place is the uncompromising Mexican dishes that keeps beckoning the customers to return for more, especially the tacos made with that pork-heavenly Carnitas, to the Flautas (once passed the first awfully made one), to the other open-faced Tostadas and Huarache, and finally the rich sobering Menudo soup.  Never mind the fairly large family crowds on the weekends and the sensory overload of music and sights (including the large screen showing Mexican fútbol).  Once you start settling in with the food, the dishes will hit the spots and you feel all just fine right here.

La Sirenita

La Sirenita
Authentic Mexican cuisine falls under the same category as Chinese: elusive in the DMV area, corrupted (at least most of the versions served here), and revelatory to the uninitiated. For a long time, I have kept a deep secret – a Mexican restaurant serving REAL Mexican food, located in the heart of Mexican immigrant community in the Edmonston neighborhood, PG County. I discovered La Sirenita during my teaching breaks from a Catholic girls school just uphill, and I had inquired the store owners of a Mexican grocery store where to eat after purchasing some home-made Mole sauce. Without hesitation, they pointed me towards her doors and it is where I entered numerous of times when I was in the mood for the veritable thing, staying away from Tex-Mex versions assuming such guise. Finally, I have decided to divulge this well-guarded information. So here are some of my favorites in this locale.

Jarrito/Mexican SodaAgua de Tamarindo

Walking into this establishment, you know you have stepped into a different world. English is a minority language here (the waitresses are perfectly bilingual) and the non-Mexican face scarce. The menu is written in both languages but remains a bit inaccessible for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. What adds to the ambience is the jukebox pumping out loud Ranchera music with its characteristic polka-like beats interspersed by equally loud Mariachi music wailing out one’s miseries like the Blues. This would make one reach for a Corona or Dos Equis to either revel in the festive mood or drown one’s sorrow.  But on nearly all occasions, my friends and I choose the non-alcoholic versions. Jarrito is the Mexican soda made with natural flavors and most importantly, natural cane sugar, unlike the high fructose corn syrup found in American soda. They come in all different fruit flavors along with their day-glo color which probably is the only non-natural element in it. This soft drink is more satisfying for its fruity element as well as the naturally filling sugars found in it. For a non-gaseous drink, I prefer to order Agua de Tamarindo. A mini jug arrived to the table filled with a concoction made from tamarind pulp, tasting slightly sour, quite fruity with a clove-like note, and slightly sweet from a judicious addition of sugar. A previous order has been Horchata which is a sweet rice and milk drink punctuated by notes of interest brought by cinnamon powder. There is a selection of fruit shakes that are worth venturing also.

Tostada de Ceviche

Coctel de CamaronThere are a few appetizers or small-bites worth starting off your meal here and they are seafood based. The first is Tostada de Ceviche. A crispy fried corn tortilla is topped with a melange of squid, scallop, and faux crabmeat, all brought together by a tomato-based sauce spiked with a good hit of hot sauce, made tart with some lime juice, and fragrant with some cilantro. All the pieces of seafood were well-cooked without being tough or chewy and they tasted well-marinated in the spicy tart sauce. The perfectly ripe avocado slices provided the rich element to each bite as well as a softer contrast to the seafood and crunchy tortilla. This is definitely a very satisfactory meal-opener. An equally appealing order is Coctel de Camaron. This is a far cry from the Shrimp Cocktail that most have grown up on. Here fresh tasting small-sized shrimp are paired with cubes of soft and rich avocado, swimming in a pool of sweet and tart tomato sauce, spiked with hot sauce, and made slightly pungent with bits of fresh onion. Saltines are provided to add some starch to the seafood as well as add some relief (along with the rich avocado) to the bold sauce that tends to envelop all the taste buds. Another worthwhile order.

Tacos de Puerco y Pollo

Taco de LenguaTacos here are the order of the day. Again, this dish made the authentic way will dispel one’s notion of what it is. They arrive with a double layer of fresh and soft tortilla tasting recently made and exuding its corn-goodness much like ground hominy. The filling is made with marinated chunks of meat, not the usual ground meat, cooked on the flat grill and nearly greaseless but tasting savory. Here, these wraps are served with some limes and topped with a generous amount of sweet onion and green onions and cilantro – that simple. Maybe a touch of the fiery red chili or green chili sauces would be the additional dressing, but not the slathering of salsa that we are accustomed to. The pork and chicken versions hit the spot for my BFF who loves their rendition here and makes it a point to join my group when we visit here. Other versions made with barbecued goat, Barbacoa, and cow’s tongue, Lengua, are indicative of the level of authenticity one finds here. I quite enjoy the slight gaminess and chewy texture of my order made with tongue despite it being a bit fattier than the usual cuts.

Huarache de PolloA couple of other small bites are worth considering. Huarache is a grilled white corn cake much like a Johnny cake found in the South. The topping is a slathering of refried beans, some meat (chicken, beef, or no meat), some shredded lettuce and onion, and finished with a drizzle of Mexican sour cream, crema, and crumbly cheese, queso fresco. I enjoyed this plateful with the texture and taste of the corn cake, the smooth refried beans, and the milk products, with the mild crema and equally mild crumbled cheese tasting innocuous from not being aged. A few drops of the red and green chili sauces added the necessary punch for this diner, and it was satisfying indeed.

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Tamal de PolloAn order of Tamal was made on one occasion. They come either with a stuffing of pork and red chili sauce or chicken with green chili sauce. The cake arrived wrapped in corn husk, exuding more of its corn goodness into the savory cornmeal cake. The stuffing of chicken and green chili was a bit dry but sufficient to balance out the starch and it had a bit of piquancy to it. However, the cornmeal was quite dense compared to the Salvadoran versions that I have a penchant for. The slightly dry corners were an indication that they had been microwaved, thus making them drier than what they are supposed to be. Maybe spending some time in the steamer would have made these more enjoyable.

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Mole Poblano

For the main course, one of my favorites is Mole Poblano. Pieces of chicken arrived slathered with the Pre-Columbian sauce that is quintessential to authentic Mexican cuisine with the use of ingredients indigenous to Meso-America: dried chilies, several types of roasted seeds including pumpkin and sesame seeds, and finally a surprising ingredient – chocolate. With this dish, the chicken plays the supporting role to this incredibly complex sauce with its nuttiness, spiciness, and a depth from the unsweetened chocolate, tasting fresh and house made. The side of steamy tortillas is necessary to mop up every drop of that elixir that I cannot get enough of. The other sides of Mexican rice and cooked pinto beans are decent and tasty, but overshadowed by the Mole. Another version of this dish is Enchiladas de Mole. Tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken mixed with the Mole sauce and topped with lettuce, crema, and queso fresco, fresh Mexican cheese. This dish is a definite hit for me and my friends. When in a good Mexican restaurant, go for the Mole dishes when the sauce is this delicioso!

Camarones a la Plancha

A seafood main course that we have tried is Camarones a la Plancha. Shrimp is cooked on the flat grill with pieces of onion, shell-on or off.  A strong point in this house is the freshness of its seafood and this dish does not fail on that count. The butterflied and deveined shrimp tasted well=seasoned and still moist from the grilling with slivers of cooked onion adding some sweetness to each bite. My friend prefers his order with the shells on since he finds it too salty without the shells. In addition, cooking shrimp with shell on helps to keep it moist. This dish is worth digging your fingers into it, tasting the seasoning on the shell, and enjoying the seafood sweetness of each morsel. Another dish worth ordering is Camarones a la Mexicana. Pieces of butterflied and shelled shrimp come covered with a tomato-based sauce that is devoid of its acidic nature and enriched by a good dose of garlic that makes each drop worth savoring. Seafood dishes are strong suits here since the cooks execute the fresh sea ingredients skilfully in their offerings.

Everything at La Sirenita is Puro Mexicano – unadulterated, authentic, well-cooked, a bit of a dive, loud music, a bit garish decor, non-gringo, and inviting at the same time.  It maybe a bit intimidating stepping though its doors the first few times.  But with the delicious and fresh seafood like the Tostada de Ceviche, Coctel de Camaron, and the shrimp main courses, along with the veritable and oh-so-tasty Tacos made the real way, along with the star dishes made with the to-die-for Mole sauce, one is willing to overcome such trepidation and realize that this is the real deal, a far cry from what we have thought what Mexican cuisine is about.   So, when you are in the mood for some good Mexican fare, plan a trip to this establishment, and stepping through its doors will feel like “Bienvenido a Mexico.”

La Sirenita on Urbanspoon

Casa Oaxaca 2

DSC_7537.jpgA few months ago, I paid a visit to a modern Mexican restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC to sample their vegan menu (see blog).  I was impressed by their modern approach to the presentation and rendition of some classic Mexican dishes like Quesadillas, Chile Relleno, and the Cactus salad, Nopalito.  While I was waiting for the meatless offerings to arrive at my table, I had a chance to peruse the other dishes that would delight the die-hard carnivore.  I had been anticipating my next visit during the four-month wait, thinking about some of the interesting sounding dishes that looked familiar and some new to my palate.

With an online offer coupon in hand (food blogging can make quite a dent to the pocketbook, thus I take “any means necessary” to make such hobby more economical), I showed up at Casa Oaxaca to meet a new online friend.  Unfortunately, unlike my previous visit, the upstairs was not available to customers, thus I had no choice but to find the brightest lit table in the rather cavernous basement floor.  Even under such lighting, it was a real challenge taking some decent photos with the low-level lighting which the staff were tempted to dim even further as the night progressed.  Notwithstanding such challenges, my friend and I were quite excited about tasting the offerings.

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While we were perusing the menu, we were regaled with a complimentary amuse-bouche.  Small discs of freshly made tortilla were covered with some cooked beans and topped with cheese.  The tortilla tasted home-made and slightly musky from the dried corn and lime powder.  The beans were smooth and quite mild in flavor with the cheese adding a slight richness without overpowering its partners.  A mild-tasting but nice start to the meal.

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Our first order was Kekas since my dining mate was not too keen on the Grasshopper Cheese Fondue (yes, crunchy Chapulines is a common staple South of the Border).  The plate came with a trio of quesadillas made with non-GMO (non-genetically modified organics) pink-hued tortillas.  The one stuffed with fresh corn and huitlacoche had the sweetness of the former starch and the mustiness of the latter dark corn fungus, which is also another exotic staple in Mexican cuisine.  The other stuffed with cheese, onions, and squash blossoms was a mild tasting and slightly sweet from the flower petals and onions, which made it quite distinct in its meek way.  The boldest quesadilla was the Pork Carnitas stuffing which was thinly shredded pork with a rich savory sauce that stood out the most with its savoriness and bolder flavors.  The side of Crema, light Mexican sour cream, added an additional unctuousness to these bites.  This was a good appetizer with the quality noticeable in the cooking and the ingredients themselves.

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The next course was a trio of Tacos de Cordero.  It is basically soft tacos that envelop a mound of barbecued lamb meat.  The meat was fork-tender and very tasty, although a bit too salty for my taste.  The sauce had a hint of dry “wood” spices like cumin and cinnamon.  The usual choice meat for a barbacoa is goat, but in this case lamb is used, which exuded a slight gamey note to the bite.  The pickled red onions was the acidic relief needed for this rich dish and to balance the lamb flavor.  The side of corn salad was delightful with its summer sweetness that was tempered by a hint of lime juice and cilantro.  The refried beans were smooth and slightly smokey, which made them quite irresistible.  The Mexican Rice was well-made but nothing extraordinary.  If weren’t for the heavy hand in the salt, this would have made the perfect taco dish.

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For our entrées, we chose a couple of dishes that represented authentic Mexican cuisine. The first was Tres Moles.  It was a visually stunning dish with pieces of cooked chicken that were dressed with the traditional sauce of Oaxaca, Mole.  I was curious to try this dish since I was only familiar with one type of mole sauce, Mole Poblano, which is made from a long list of dried chilies, nuts, and cacao.  This restaurant’s version was probably one of the best I have had with some smokiness from the dried roasted chilies, slightly nutty, and the cacao added a dark rich note to the sauce – I was literally lapping up every drop of it from the plate.  The green mole was made from tomatillos and garlic, and it was slightly acidic from the gooseberry relative.  The red mole was quite piquant from the use of more searing chilies and it was the least favorite of mine.  But this dish was a delicious study of contrast and it highlights the sophistication of this Pre-Columbian cuisine.  This dish is a definite must-order at this restaurant and a tasty introduction to authentic Mexican cuisine.

DSC_0742.jpgThe final entrée was Pato al Mole.  Pieces of organic duck thigh are paired with a mole sauce made with figs.  I was really anticipating the arrival of this dish judging by the name itself.  However, the dish was a slight let down since the duck was a bit over-cooked and a bit too salty, and the sauce did not have any pronounced discernible fruity fig flavor but a slightly sweeter version of the Mole Poblano in the above dish.  I appreciate the restaurant’s effort to take the traditional flavors to a more modern direction with the use of duck as the protein and figs as part of the mole sauce.  However, I feel that it needs a bit of fine-tuning and it would be a great success.
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DSC_0747.jpgFor dessert, we decided to try something that was typically Latin with a Mexican flair – Flan de Chocolate.  It was basically a flan custard made with chocolate/coco and drizzled with some tequila.  However, I found the flan a bit too dense and lacking the smooth creamy consistency which comes from as the result of condensed milk and the right proportions of ingredients to lighten it up.  Furthermore, the chocolate flavor in the flan was produced from the use of coco powder and chocolate syrup which did not add much depth or richness.  The pool of tequila did not do much to the dish and I felt it was not necessary.  What a shame.  Again, this dish needs fine tuning and it could be stellar. Unfortunately, it was ho-hum like the vegan version of Pastel de Tres Leches that I had on my last visit.

DSC_0754.jpgAs part of the coupon offer, the final piece de resistance was a trio flight of different Mezcals, akin to tequila.  Who would refuse such a treat, unless you are a serious teetotaler.  Not familiar with the different types of this Mexican liquor, I was curious to discover something new.  It is made from the Maguey which is a type of agave plant found in Oaxaca, closely related to the Blue Agave used to make tequila.  The first offering was the plain mezcal.  We were instructed to drink with a salt made with Chapulines (grasshopper – finally I got to taste it!) and a squeeze of sweet orange.  I must say that this was a better version of Tequila Shots with the smoother Mexcal, the slightly smoky salt, and the sweet orange slice that did not produce that puckered face effect like with tequila.  The second flight was a smoked version of the first clear mezcal – it was a bit too smokey for me although it is the most common version.  The final version tasted like the coffee liquor, Kahlua, and my dinner mate enjoyed it much like a dessert wine.  This was a great ending to the meal, which left us slightly buzzed but not inebriated due to the quantity of food we had consumed.

DSC_7586.jpgJust like my first trip to Casa Oaxaca to try its vegan menu, there were more highlights in this time’s tasting than the disappointments.  The Kekas Quesadillas were flavorful with the different meat and vegetable stuffing especially the Pork Carnitas and Huitlacoche fungus.  The Lamb Tacos were fork-tender and well-seasoned despite the slight over-salting.  The Tres Moles was perhaps the best dish we tried and this restaurant’s version did some justice to this national dish with the complex sauces.  The trio flight of mezcal shots was the perfect ending, a much smoother version than the back-throat-burning tequila.  Casa Oaxaca is worth visiting to savor well-made authentic Mexican dishes that will dispel one’s prejudices or preconceived notions of this cuisine, and it will impress any diner with the restaurant’s familiar and exotic offerings.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Casa Oaxaca

DSC_7519.jpgOK, I hear you loud and clear, and I get it – at least, from some of you.  After posting Elevation Burger in the last blog (see blog) and attempting to balance my postings with those on establishments offering a scant number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, a couple of Facebook friends quickly shot back comments requesting me to write on more eateries that focused on a meatless and vegan lifestyle.  Furthermore, a fellow Buddhist on my mass email list also responded by asking herself to be removed from my notices as she stated that her diet had “changed”, which I was not sure exactly what she was alluding to, perhaps a reaction to the photos of meat dishes that could have been “offending” her sensibilities.  I guess for some, Meat Means Murder!

Being a practising Buddhist, I frequently try to aspire towards the ideal of following a vegetarian diet, albeit a mere recommendation and not a permanent personal practice as of yet (the Buddhist thinking is that strict rules/commandments will only create some form of issues around such restrictions or make one even develop a rebellious attitude).  So, when an online offer popped up on my computer for a Mexican eatery that offered both separate meat and vegan menus, I bought both coupons and decided to explore their meatless selections first.  In addition to the lack of a vegetarian/vegan restaurant on my site, I decided to kill two birds with one stone (oops, that doesn’t sound very Buddhist) by penning my first blog on a Latin American establishment.

DSC_7583.jpgCasa Oaxaca touts itself as a Modern Mexican Restaurant,  located in the busy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan where the streets are literally jam-packed with different eateries that offer a wide variety to entice the roaming palate.  This area went through what I called the “Adams Morgan effect” in which ethnic eateries managed to keep the level of authenticity in their kitchen only for a short moment before losing its identity due to the hiring of non-native cheap labor.  Like everything in life subject to the process of natural selection (or customer selection, in this case), the fittest restaurants survived and they continue to offer high-quality cooking, as in La Churreria de Madrid (see blog) around the corner. Perusing Casa Oaxaca’s website, I was looking forward to savoring and writing about the vegan dishes offered by this Mexican locale.

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DSC_7540.jpgThe restaurant is divided into two floors, and on my visit, I had to enter through the bottom floor into the rather cavernous space.  Knowing that such dark space would not produce flattering photos for the blog, I requested permission to eat in the upper part which was still closed.  The manager, Joana, was gracious enough to open up the upper floor for my needs.  While waiting for the manager to invite me up, I ordered a typical Mexican drink that I am rather fond of, Horchata.  This version is made with almonds, rice, and rice milk (not the usual with cow’s milk), which make it a vegan thirst quencher.  It was rather sweet for me on the first few sips, but the diluting ice cubes brought it to the correct level after a few minutes.  The pieces of almonds and a hit of cinnamon added the right notes to this rice milk concoction.  A satisfying slurp, indeed.

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For the opener, I decided on the Timbal de Nopal.  It consists of layers of fresh tomato, grilled cactus, and vegan cheese, slathered with some Pico de Gallo.  The round of cactus was a bit too crunchy despite the grilling and a bit too smoky from the charring – maybe a short stay in boiling water would make it more fork tender.  The fresh salsa packed some heat punch (perhaps from chile serrano), coupled by the chile ancho oil pool around the plate.  Even for this chile aficionado, it was borderline overwhelming.  Unfortunately, the vegan cheese was lost in the dish due to the piquancy and the overall acidity.   This definitely was an appetite opener but I was hoping for a bit more subtlety.

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My first main course was a Mexican classic, Chiles Rellenos.  A roasted Poblano pepper is stuffed with pieces of zucchini, carrots, grilled corn, spinach, soy meat, and pumpkin seeds.  This concoction was muy delicioso as the various elements were well-balanced by the sweet vegetables and the mild vegan protein, which I would have preferred it a bit more seared (my meat-loving instincts crying out here).  The slightly sweet and spicy green pepper is perfected complemented by a delectable orange tomato sauce that is moderately spiked by chile guajillo.  The accompanying refried black beans was perfectly executed with enough flavor even without the customary lard as its base.  The topping of vegan cheese on both beans and roasted chile even had the distinctive parmesan-like aroma that one can get from the non-vegan version, which lent some further richness and complexity to both items.  The side of Mexican rice was fluffy and equally flavorful.  I truly enjoyed this dish especially that perfect tomato sauce that made this dish sing, of which I lapped every drop on the plate.

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For the second main, I ordered a trio of bites called Quesadillas Tricolor. This really colorful dish is made with pastel-hued Non Genetically Modified (Non GMO) soft tacos stuffed with squash blossoms, mushroom cooked in a guajillo salsa, and corn cooked with the exotic corn fungus, huitlacoche.   I enjoyed the subtlety of the mild squash blossoms, the meatiness of the sautéed mushrooms, and the interesting note brought by the slightly sour and musty corn fungus on the yellow corn kernels.  But what tied the elements together was the very tasty vegan almond cheese whose savoriness blew my taste buds away especially for not being dairy – I could not get enough of this stringy “creamy” cheese that made these some mean and fulfilling quesadillas. The ring of chile ancho oil provided the necessary heat without overwhelming or complicating the flavors.
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Vegan Tres Leches CakeTo end the meal, I wanted to order a dessert made with papaya, an exotic fruit that I grew up on in the tropics. Unfortunately, the kitchen was out of it and I elected for the Pastel Tres Leches. A dairy-free cupcake has been soaked in coconut milk served on a sauce of coconut milk and berry sauce, topped by non toasted coconut flakes. This dessert was decent but it lacked the unctuousness of the regular version made with milk, condensed milk, and rich whip cream – I guess the original flavors of some desserts cannot be adequately substituted by vegan ingredients. However, my grandmother did make some heavenly vegan desserts with this tropical nut and its creamy milk, so it is possible to come up with a good alternative. Perhaps the papaya dessert or the mango sorbet will be my selection on the next visit.

Casa Oaxaca stands out among the plethora of Mexican-style and Tex-Mex eateries that tend to dilute the integrity of this rich cuisine.  What this establishment brings to the table is a level of sophisticated cooking while recognizing the authentic tradition that shape the unique flavors and ingredients, exemplified by the charred cactus paddle, the pairing of grilled poblano pepper and the perfectly made tomato-guajillo sauce, and the satisfying corn kernels and corn fungus quesadilla stuffing along with that heavenly tasting almond cheese.  If the vegan offerings at this establishment look and taste this good, I’m looking forward to my next trip to try out the non-vegan dishes.  I get a feeling that I will not be disappointed and will leave with a big smile and satisfecho.

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