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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.

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Comments

ncboy Oct. 29, 2009 @ 6:18 p.m.

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.

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or Oct. 29, 2009 @ 6:45 p.m.

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.

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ncboy Oct. 30, 2009 @ 10:37 a.m.

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.

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mexfood Nov. 24, 2009 @ 3:01 p.m.

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!

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David Dodd Nov. 24, 2009 @ 3:32 p.m.

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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