Along with the stuffed chiles, the most popular dish at the restaurant is carne de cerdo en chile pasilla. This features the same shredded roast pork loin, here served with a rich, smooth red-brown sauce made with sun-dried poblano and chilaca chiles, tomato, garlic, onion, and a touch of cloves. (The menu gives ingredient lists for its dinner dishes.) "Mmm, Mexican barbecue sauce," said my partner. This, too, had a perfect spiciness -- warming, not burning.
The fish entrées are based on whichever popular species is in season -- Alaskan halibut now, Chilean sea bass in winter. Halibut and shrimp are paired in salsa jamaica, the sauce made from anise-flavored hibiscus flowers (think Screaming Red Zinger tea). The fish, with a crisped surface, was only moderately overcooked and overwhelmed by the cerise-colored sweet-tart sauce. On the side was baby spinach, well drained this time. "I like the sauce, and these shrimps are sweet and not overcooked," said Fred. "I can live without the fish." I learned later that the owners are about to introduce Atlantic salmon to the menu, to better withstand the power of the sauces. A good idea, since halibut is the wimp of the ocean.
Or perhaps it's the chicken breast of the sea. All poultry dishes here are made with skinless, boneless chicken breast, which I consider "healthy" to the point of torment. But we were tempted by one of the evening's specials, chicken in mole poblano sauce, that legendary invention of the foodie nuns of Puebla. Vast numbers of local restaurants make this dish with the bottled mole sauces you can buy at the supermarket. Here, it's obviously cooked from scratch, with eccentric proportions of flavors, a strong clove note, and a garnish of sesame seeds. Unfortunately, the balance of flavors was upset by a faintly bitter, burned undertone, and rather a lot of sugar to counteract it. "This tastes like Hershey's chocolate!" my partner insisted. I kept telling him I was sure it was made with Ibarra Mexican chocolate, but no matter -- at some point, it seems, the burner was set too high.
Most dishes come with rice and beans, and we liked both. The arroz rojo is dry but lively, with a dusting of semi-hot red chile powder, about the strength of hot Hungarian paprika. The deep-flavored beans are stewed-thick frijoles with a wealth of seasonings and caramelized onions, semi-mashed and containing just enough olive oil for good texture.
Clearly, the kitchen at Chilango's is a little uneven from dish to dish, night to night, but this is a menu worth exploring to find your own favorites. I'd happily return for many more meals, because there's one guarantee: No boring gringo-Mex grub here.
ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNERS
Two brothers from Mexico City, Victor and Carlos Bautista, own and run Chilango's, now open four years. Victor runs the front of the house and occasionally cooks, while Carlos is the primary chef. "My mom did the menu for us," says Victor. "This is what you eat when you live in Mexico City. When we first got this place, it was a taco shop, and that wasn't working for us. We decided to change the concept. We thought of our mom's recipes, remembering all the times friends ate at our house and said how good it was, so we called Mom and asked her to help us. She helped us for about a year.
"My mom knows a lot of [regional] recipes. The reason we call our food 'Mexico City cuisine' is that the dishes are not necessarily from Mexico City, but a lot of people moved into Mexico City during the '50s, looking for a better life -- moving there from Oaxaca, Guerrero, the Yucatan Peninsula. So they all combined their gastronomic techniques. 'Mexico City food' comes from all over central and southern Mexico. We call the restaurant Chilango's because that's a Mexico City slang term that arose around that time. A chilango is a 'city person,' the opposite of campesinos, the country people who were moving in.
"...I worked in restaurants for 11 years before we started this one, at Il Fornaio and the Four Seasons in Carlsbad. I cook a little here, but I was always in the front of the house," says Victor. "My brother loves to cook, but he never worked in a restaurant before. He used to work at the hospital at UC Irvine. But he's got a passion for food."
The brothers hand-pick their vegetables from Rancho Fresco and the farmer's market in Barrio Logan. They buy their seafood from a local wholesaler who accepts small orders, since they want it fresh and don't have (or want) a walk-in freezer. "We don't use any deep-fried items. We eat a lot of vegetables in Mexico City, and even though we live in the city, we eat a lot of seafood. The food we serve is very authentic, very homemade, true to central and southern Mexico cuisine."