Fiesta for Friends

It’s weird that right on the border here, we’re so slow to catch up with the rest of the country on real Mexican cuisine. We’ve got lots of “Mexican” food but hardly any Mexican cuisine, compared to the ambitious, creative regional and nueva comida mexicana restaurants of New York, Chicago, Atlanta, et al. Our local region is Baja California (a cuisine that includes vibrant wood-grilled carne asada tacos, local-raised quails and venison, dry-aged Sonora steaks, fresh and smoked seafoods, etc.), but this side of the line, just try to get anything beyond fish tacos.

The nueva comida mexicana movement started in upscale resorts and particularly the deluxe Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, where talented (and often well-schooled) chefs are turning traditional Mexican ingredients into sophisticated creations. El Vitral is a new East Village showplace, helmed by chef Norma Martínez, and it’s all about that sort of urbane creativity. For my first dinner there, during Restaurant Week, I invited Sam, a Chicagoan whose palate has been happily spoiled by Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo Frontera Grill (a favorite of the Obama family). El Vitral’s Restaurant Week menu seemed an ideal starting place — the entrées were those I’d have chosen to order anyway.

The vast dining room has an open kitchen at the far end and parquet floors along the bar. The decor is modern, clean, suburban-shiny, and very red (walls, chairs, napkins, and the occasional patron’s face, right after the first sip of one of the spicy margarita variations). A vitral is a stained-glass window, and they have a few of those, too, over the bar. The wall to the patio is soundproofed glass that can be rolled up in good weather for inside-outside eating. From inside, with the glass down, you can’t hear the noise from Petco or even the mariachis playing for private parties on the patio a few inches away.

However, there’s some sort of bad music playing on the sound system inside. From my table at a second meal, just inside the patio glass of the dining room, we couldn’t hear any melody, just the thuds of the bass beat, like a mild headache. Who needs that in a room where, all around us, people were sharing platters, laughing, joking, and clearly enjoying each other’s conversation? Suggestion: maybe some Flaco Jiménez, Los Alegres de Terán, Lydia Mendoza, some classic corridos and norteño bands instead? A loop of the album Chulas Fronteras from Arhoolie Records would be a good start. (Yeah, that’s all Tejano, not Baja, but as far as I can tell, Tijuana norteño is mainly narcocorridos lately. Yet, even those would be preferable to thunk thunk.)

Sam, Jennifer, and I avoided the thunks by choosing a patio table to enjoy the last of summer, our toes almost touching Petco’s Park on the Park. The restaurant features an enormous selection of tequilas, and much of the cocktail list is given to margarita variations. The “Classic” was just okay. Sam chose the house specialty, a spicy variation called “The Smoking Tippler” (Cabo Wabo reposado, mango, chipotle syrup) — da bomb! Jennifer tried the “Fresa,” a pleasant tequila martini sweetened with puréed fresh strawberries. (A second dinner included additional spicy experiments, but “Smoking Tippler” still scored the highest.)

Our charming waiter sweet-talked us into trying the $13 off-menu Guacamole Trio. The three versions of the spread: one base-hit, one ball, one strike. The “tomatillo” version was the best — tart and complex, topped with a scattering of Cotija cheese and pepitas (small toasted pumpkin seeds). The “El Vitral” was amended with sweet fruits (mango and jicama) and soy sauce and was interesting. But the tradicional classic was a huge yawn, in dire need of a heaping spoonful of table salsa to liven it up.

But as we looked over our table, we remembered from an earlier review we’d read that El Vitral is a bit too hoity-toity to automatically serve salsa and chips like “lesser” Mexican restaurants, much less put a bottle of hot sauce on the table. No problem with no chips, but withholding the salsas not only seems chintzy but is a tactical error: At a subsequent meal, small portions of three different hot sauces came with one of the entrées, and all three were scintillating — a fiery coral habanero purée, a sneaky-hot green salsa verde, and, best of all, a sparkling “salsita,” aka salsa fresca, the classic home-style table sauce of minced raw tomatoes, onions, and chilis. That terrific trio — or even just the “salsita” alone — would be the best possible advertisement that El Vitral could make for itself, inspiring instant trust.

Restaurant Week appetizers: one triple, one strikeout, one comedy act. The surprise hit was a quesadilla, a world apart from the desperation dinners of starving students and vampire-shift scribblers. The coating of the empanada-sized packet wasn’t a folded-over tortilla but a light batter of cornmeal masa. The filling was a mixture of luxurious melted Oaxaca cheese with zucchini blossoms and a bit of huitlacoche (corn “truffles”). On the other hand, flautas de pollo were tough cylinders of rolled corn tortillas filled with a leaden mixture of dry chicken shreds and black-bean purée. They were nicely garnished with Mexican sour cream, Cotija cheese, and a pleasant chipotle aioli — but who cares for this fancy-shmancy stuff when, really, all the best flautas are just topped with a heap of good guacamole along with the crema fresca. Sometimes the old ways are best.

We were just talking about taking home raw oysters from Blue Water on India Street and giving them the N’Awlins treatment when the mahi mahi ceviche arrived, making me break out in giggles when I realized that the sauce was a sweetened, spiced-up variation of the Creole cocktail sauce served at New Orleans oyster bars — here, with puréed tomatoes subbing for NOLA’s Heinz cocktail-sauce base. Don’t eat that, eat this: the ceviche de camarón (from my second meal), tender shrimps in a roasted tomatillo, poblano chili, and citrus salsa, a charmer that came with thin, almost translucent house-made chips, not typical fried leftover tortilla triangles but made-from-scratch masa poufs. When you think of it, the variety and quality of house-made masa products (plus pastas and baked goods) coming out of this kitchen are impressive.

A home-run at first swing: our entrée of Enchiladas de Pato (duck-filled enchiladas). The fresh-tasting house-made tortillas were small, light, and faintly sweet. The filling mingled pulled duck and a hint of chopped apricots, and the coral-colored chili and Cotija-cheese sauce was sweet, suave, a bit spicy. The enchiladas were miniature, but the portion was generous — six of them, made to share.

Our other two entrées were good ideas, imperfectly executed. Mole Poblano had a rich, complex, dark sauce, sweet and moderately spicy, but wasted on desiccated chicken breast. “What’s the deal with chicken breast in mole this side of the border?” asked Jennifer. “What’s the Mexican cultural norm for chicken, for that matter?” asked Sam, comparing this dry version to the moist Italian-style paillards he’d just eaten at Piatti. “Mole was designed for turkey,” I said, “back in the day when that was a wild bird and mostly dark meat, before the guajalote chicks started looking at cosmetic-surgery ads in the papers and getting their chimichangas enlarged…I can’t imagine why restaurants use chicken breasts, when thighs are more like turkey plus cheaper, easier to cook.” “And moister,” added Jennifer.

On my second visit, I tried the sauce again in Fettucini con Pato en Mole, pulled duck with apricots and crunchy cashews, served with tender house-made fresh pasta. Dark, enticing duck meat worked much better, and since the whole concept of the dish is a little nutsy, those cashews fit right in. The sauce seemed spicier, too. The combination made for a giddy, sensual mix of flavors and textures.

Back at Restaurant Week: Ravioles en nogada is a cute idea. The original chiles en nogada is a dish celebrating Mexican independence day with the colors of the flag: dark-green poblano stuffed with a fruited, minced- (or ground-) beef stuffing, topped with white walnut cream sauce scattered with scarlet pomegranate seeds. Here, instead of chilis, are house-made pale-green pasta pockets (incorporating chile poblano purée) stuffed with beef and fruit, topped with the classic white walnut sauce drizzled with pomegranate reduction. It’s near-great, except that the pasta wrappers were too thick, undercooked, chewy — a long fly to the outfield resulting in a double, not a homer.

An out-of-the-ballpark hit came with a simple dessert of cinnamon-fragrant mini-churros — crisp outside, fluffy-soft inside — with a ramekin of coconut sauce for dipping, gooey and sybaritic but not cloying. The other two Restaurant Week desserts were bad and worse: a coarse empanada de ate con queso (a small, thick dough-shell filled with Mexican cream cheese and jelly) and a horrendous brownie, glutinous enough to pull out your tooth fillings and sweet enough to leave new cavities. The espresso was above average, served hot and fresh with dessert, as requested.

“Would you eat here again?” I asked my friends. “No,” said Jennifer. “For this type of upscale Mexican food, you can do much better at Candelas. Maybe even at El Agave — although I have to admit I haven’t been there in years.” “Not yet,” said Sam. “Their chef has great ideas, but the kitchen has problems with execution. The food is interesting but not consistent.”

Obviously, our Restaurant Week meals wouldn’t make a fair assessment — the place still felt too new. So I came back nearly a month later with Samurai Jim and Fred. We ate different dishes (no more chicken breast…in anything!), and they were all better than the first try. Either the Restaurant Week menu wasn’t well chosen or the kitchen has matured rapidly.

Along with the shrimp ceviche (described earlier) we started with callos de hacha, a trio of big, beautiful local (Baja) scallops cooked tender-done. Each was set on a pedestal of a small quesadilla (again made with fresh masa) filled with barbacoa (pulled braised beef with citrus juice) and topped with a juicy square of fresh, seared nopalito cactus, the whole mixture dressed lightly in cilantro vinaigrette. It’s a bold, unconventional combination, not entirely harmonious but arresting — and delicious. All three of us agreed we’d love to eat these again.

This dinner’s great glory was crema de elote con poblanos — creamy corn chowder topped with streaks of poblano chili aioli. Its sensuous, primal comfort had all three of us batting our eyelids and smiling like happy infants after each spoonful. By the way, budget-watchers, it’s very filling: for $8, you’ve got most of a dinner.

For another ten bucks, and for the hell of it, I ordered a fish taco as an extra appetizer: a small, thin, house-made corn tortilla wrapped around a generous portion of tender beer-battered mahi mahi chunks, fully dressed with salsa verde, crema fresca, Mexican cole slaw, and chipotle aioli. Hurray for that: I hate DIY fish tacos, ’cause it’s not my native cuisine, so how the hell is an exiled nuevayorquera-frisqueña gabacha supposed to know how to dress these exotic Baja things? We were all surprised by its excellence, the fish treated respectfully and garnished well and proportionately.

Half the reason I came back was to taste the Cochinita Pibíl, a Yucatecan dish that inspires me with profound ambivalence and forlorn hope. It’s a great culinary idea that usually turns out dry and horrible, even (or especially) in the dreary restaurants on the central plaza of Mérida, Yucatan’s “county seat.” The original: a suckling pig marinated in spices and sour orange juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-baked in a fire-pit. Well, not lately. There’s an even more common restaurant version in Mérida, pollo pibíl, featuring dried-out chicken. When my then-husband, his cousin, and I went to Chichen Itza and discovered at lunchtime that there were no food vendors in the park, we decided we should open a pollo pibíl stand among the ruins and call it “Itza Chicken!” (Cousin Peggy later topped this with an even better pun: In the woods behind the ruins, we discovered an abandoned single-gauge railroad track. “Pardon me, boy, is this the Chichen Itza Choo-Choo?” she sang.)

At El Vitral, the moist, tasty, orange-flavored pulled pork-shoulder shreds (seeming more a mixiote than a pibíl) were served atop a banana leaf for form’s sake and garnished properly, traditionally, with pickled red onions. So, it’s not wholly authentic — it’s better.

The spendy entrée recommended by our excellent waiter (able to answer all questions about ingredients and prep methods) was Cordero al Guajillo, rack of lamb in a suave sauce of Guajillo chilis and ground peanuts. Without our specifying doneness, it arrived a perfect rosy medium-rare — cut into three meaty rib chops in a sauce that flattered the lamb. Alongside were Peruvian purple potatoes and hunks of fried plantain. (This dish, the most expensive on the menu, probably brought us the three great salsas, too, along with a basketful of the fine house-made “chips.” Either that, or you get them automatically with entrées when it’s not Restaurant Week.) The lamb was excellent but overpriced for the amount of thrill it affords, given that most entrées here cost at least $10 less.

Overall, this second meal was a fiesta for the mouth, offering guidelines for how to eat economically at this rather upscale destination. “This would be a great date place if you don’t eat too much,” said Jim. “Start with a pair of ‘Smoking Tipplers,’ the scallop appetizer, and shrimp ceviche. Then a bowl of that corn soup, and if you’re still hungry, a taco.” “Or the duck enchiladas instead of the taco,” I said. “And you want to finish off with the airy little churros. That sensual coconut sauce is your perfect happy ending.”

El Vitral
* (Very Good)
815 J Street, downtown, 619-236-9420,
HOURS: Sunday–Friday 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; weekends until midnight; Saturday and Sunday brunches 11 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, soups, salads, $7–$11; sides, $4; tacos, $9–$13; entrées, $18–$35 (most low $20s).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Ambitious menu of creative re-creations of multiregional Mexican dishes. Huge list of tequilas and cocktails. Well-edited multinational wine list, many affordable choices.
PICK HITS: “Smoking Tippler” margarita. Appetizers: Sopa de Elotes (corn soup), quesadillas, Callos de Hacho (scallops). Entrées: fish taco; Enchiladas de Pato (duck mini-enchiladas), Cochinita Pibíl (Mayan-style “pulled pork”), fettuccine with duck in mole sauce. Dessert: churros with coconut sauce.
NEED TO KNOW: Heated patio with view of Petco scoreboard and Park at the Park. Parking lot on Eighth Avenue just north of J ($3 on nongame nights). Informal but subtly festive; T’s fine (maybe not wife-beater tanks indoors). Sufficient choices for lacto-vegetarians. Easy to create a budget grazing meal, especially if sharing.

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Topolobampo Frontera Grill??? naomi, they are two separate restaurants. Topolobampo AND Frontera Grill are Bayless's places. Just thought the restaurant reviewer should know the facts about restaurants.

ncboy, they are 2 seperate retaurants but they are in the same place, in fact you go in the same front door for both. Perhaps naomi simply forgot the ampersand.

or a slash or simply the word and. coming from chicago myself i just didn't want people to think one of the best chefs in the city (country for that matter)had only one place.

If you want reaalllly good Mexico City cuisine you don't need to go to any high falutin' restaurant in the Gaslamp. You need to go to Ranas in Casa de Oro, read Spring Valley.

Ranas has excellent cochinita pibil, huitalcoche quesadillas, quesadilla flor de calabazas, fish dishes, vegetarian dishes and one of my favorties, fresh pulque, (or at least as fresh as pulque can be coming from Mexico). Also, finish off your meal with some excellent flan.

When you first go to Rana's, they will serve you tasters of five different salsas you can have on your chicken, fish or beef.
The portion size of the entrees is good and everything I have had there is excellent. For the type of food they serve at Ranas, the prices are very reasonable. It doesn't pretend to be a high class place, but the food sure is.

I agree with the comments about the chicken being dry at high priced Mexican restaurants in San Diego. The many times I have been to El Agave, the chicken has never been moist, always tough and dried out. I could actually teach them to make moist chicken!

I missed this review in October! Here in Baja at home, I probably cook mostly what could be considered as "cuisine", although some of the dishes you describe couldn't be found in Baja. For example, I've never seen lamb, not even in any upscale place, nor duck, although I'm sure that duck can be found. But a couple of points, in comparison to authentic home-cooked Mexican food:

Just about any chicken mole dish is cooked using either chicken pieces or whole chicken. It is boiled (with onions and other goodies), until the meat literally falls off of the bones. The chicken meat is then hand-removed and added to the mole and cooked in the sauce. No one would use plain chicken breasts here. The chickens here in Baja are scrawny, not steroid-fed monsters like in the U.S., which makes the flavor outstanding.

Regarding quesadillas, most people here make them with masa. They are stuffed with either queso fresco (Oaxaca or whatever the favorite of the household is), or else some shredded Monterrey Jack, and often with pre-cooked chorizo. They are then lightly fried and often served with sour creme and salsa.

I cannot eat most fish tacos in the U.S., they are not done correctly in one form or another. Mahi is not so readily available here, and is otherwise expensive. If you walk into any fish market in Baja and tell the person waiting on you that you are making fish tacos, they will recommend two or three choices. There are three secrets to fish tacos: the batter, the creme sauce, and to not over-cook. If you do it right, they practically melt in your mouth. If you do it wrong, you wind up with something resembling what you would get in San Diego.

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