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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, elvitralrestaurant.com.
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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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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