IT’S VERY VER­ACRUZ

EATERY OF­FERS FAN­TAS­TIC FARE FROM COASTAL MEX­I­CAN RE­GION.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writ­ers at michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn and er­icjou@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

You might not ex­pect a na­tional flag to in­spire the phrase “mouth­wa­ter­ing”. But when a hearty plate of en­chi­ladas — suc­ces­sively sauced in green, white and red like the Mex­i­can flag — ar­rives at your ta­ble, you can be for­given the urge to salute the fragrant, steam­ing plat­ter.

The en­chi­ladas at Xalapa are ex­actly what one would ex­pect of an au­then­tic Mex­i­can restau­rant. The spicy red and the su­per-spicy verde (green) sauces smother the fresh tor­tillas and the meat-and-cheese fill­ing with­out mak­ing things mushy.

The corn shell is firm enough to pro­vide a nice tex­ture to the whole pack­age. And th­ese en­chi­ladas are big boys — four to a plate — so there’s plenty to share or take home for tomorrow’s lunch. And at 45-55 yuan ($7.50-$9) per plate, the en­chi­ladas are a ter­iffic value for money.

More un­usual in China are well- ex­e­cuted mole dishes, and Xalapa shines here, too, with sim­i­larly gen­er­ous por­tions. We opted for the chicken plat­ter, with a leg and thigh soused with sauce that was rich with co­coa and chilies. Not cloy­ingly sweet, this slow­cooked sauce had a sa­vory spici­ness that made us ap­pre­ci­ate hav­ing plenty of rice and beans on the side. In ad­di­tion to the chicken mole, you can or­der mole tamales and mole en­chi­ladas.

The que­sadil­las were also de­li­cious, though sur­pris­ingly this ap­pe­tizer was the hottest thing we tried. Le­mon wa­ter, beer and rice were lit­tle match for this plea­sur­able burn, but we were saved by the hor­chata, a rice drink that was a lit­tle bit sweet and milky enough to do the job of a fire brigade and salve our mouths. Fans of Sichuan cui­sine will be smil­ing through their tears.

On another visit we started with the sopa Azteca, a de­li­cious tomato broth en­hanced with a smat­ter­ing of sour cream, shred­ded chicken and pun­gent cilantro.

A ter­rific sur­prise was the ta­cos al pas­tor, spit- roasted meat served in a trio of pip­ing hot corn tor­tillas with a side of black beans and a per­fect chipo­tle sauce.

Owner Este­ban Zot­tele is a na­tive of Ar­gentina who grew up in Xalapa near the Mex­i­can city of Ver­acruz. That coastal com­mu­nity is fa­mous for its cui­sine — which has been shaped by in­dige­nous, Span­ish and Afro- Cuban influences over its his­tory — and vanilla, corn, seafood, rice and a heady mix of spices per­me­ate the tra­di­tional foods.

The first Xalapa restau­rant was founded in Buenos Aires in 1996, fea­tur­ing the cul­ture and cui­sine of Ver­acruz and other re­gions, in­clud­ing the trop­i­cal fla­vors of Yu­catan state. Here at the new eatery in Bei­jing, Zot­tele hasn’t found a sat­is­fac­tory sup­ply of the seafood that is so loved in Ver­acruz, so the em­pha­sis is on pork, chicken and beef dishes.

A glass case of shim­mer­ing desserts tempted us might­ily, and we saved just enough room to sam­ple some. The house­made flan is di­vinely light, and the tres leches ( three- milk) cake will leave you smil­ing with its nice rum fin­ish. The ar­roz con leche, a sim­ple- sound­ing rice pud­ding, was just sub­lime — and a good choice if you’re feel­ing too full for a mon­ster slab of rich cake.

While the food is ex­cel­lent over­all, the ser­vice doesn’t al­ways match. The staff is sweet as pie but some­times seems over­whelmed — a large party in the house can make it hard for smaller ta­bles to get at­ten­tion. Call it grow­ing pains — a com­mon chal­lenge in a new restau­rant.

De­signed in the style of a house of Xalapa, the restau­rant fea­tures a lot of dec­o­ra­tion brought from that re­gion. A mo­saic of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the pa­troness of largely Catholic Mex­ico, graces a pil­lar near the en­trance, and the lu­mi­nous bar fea­tures a se­lec­tion of tequi­las among its cock­tail-hour of­fer­ings. Man­gos de­liver one of the sweet­est kisses of trop­i­cal Mex­ico, and the mango mar­gar­i­tas here are par­tic­u­larly good.

The restau­rant is lo­cated in Xin­tiandi Huguo, a newly de­vel­oped street of shops and restau­rants that seeks to be Bei­jing’s next hip­ster haven a la Nan­lu­ogux­i­ang.

It’s a lively spot with new en­ter­prises open­ing all the time, and Xalapa is likely to en­tice the new waves of visi­tors to keep com­ing back.

ERIC JOU / CHINA DAILY

Que­sadil­las are fa­mil­iar ap­pe­tiz­ers for Mex­i­can food fans wher­ever they come from.

MIKE PETERS / CHINA DAILY

En­chi­ladas shim­mer with the green, white and red col­ors of the Mex­i­can flag. A plat­ter of sassy chicken mole mar­ries co­coa and chilies, while a mango margarita of­fers a taste of the trop­ics.

ERIC JOU / CHINA DAILY

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