We had to take a vote to decide between crab and shrimp enchiladas suizas (rich and gooey with Mexican crema) and a chili relleno stuffed with those seafoods (avant-garde and fruity). The winner, the relleno, was a large, lightly roasted poblano, unbattered to keep its fresh green flavor unsullied, stuffed with crab shreds, minced shrimp, and roasted tomatoes, with a dark sauce of pineapple-spiked guajillo chilis — sweet and spicy.
An equally dark sauce of a radically different flavor was central to the chicken and mole tortilla casserole (budin de mole, in its homeland). Shredded chicken and mole poblano (chocolate-based) sauce are layered with roasted poblano chilis, corn kernels, Mexican crema, and cheese, topped with dried tomatoes and pickled jalapeños. The menu claims that tortillas are among the layers, but where were they? I found not a trace. (In the peasant rendition, the dish typically has a high ratio of tortillas to everything else, absorbing the sauce such that it all turns rather dry.) The mole here is a very sweet, relatively simple version made with blackberry purée, compared to the ingredient-intensive, laborious originals of Puebla in southern Mexico — so the dish is inauthentic in every way. But it’s rich, deliciously easy eating.
So, too, the pork carnitas, which might more accurately be called adobo de puerco. These aren’t the familiar lard-fried, surface-crisped carnitas of folk repertoire, but small pieces of adobo-marinated braised pork shoulder with smoky black beans and salsa verde made with fresh tomatillos. Misnomered, perhaps, but luscious.
Surf and Turf was the biggest surprise. I wanted to taste the marinated skirt steak, but not as fajitas (boring) or in a burrito (fattening). On our menu, this seemed the only other main-course option. (The website menu has more offerings, including grilled steak with nopalitos, but not our local branch.) The waiter asked how done we wanted the meat. “As rare as possible,” I said — and to our whole group’s amazement, it was. Well seared but red inside, the juicy steak was topped with four medium shrimp and robed in a rich, dark sauce based on chilis pasillas (the dried version of poblano chilis), plated atop “enchiladas” of corn tortillas rolled around guajillo sauce.
What’s wonderful about the food here is the complexity of the flavors on every plate and the wide variety of chilis in sauces drawn from all the Mexican regional traditions. It’s not upscale French-Mex (e.g., Candelas) but offers a dazzling display of creativity and sophistication, with flawless execution at our meal. The dishes may not be quite authentic, but they’re often better — more like fiesta food, conceived by a chef who knows the traditions so well, he can gracefully use them as the bases of inspired updates. Our whole group really enjoyed the meal, which had not a single dud among 11 dishes.
Our waiter was obviously a pro. He didn’t need to write down our orders but memorized them accurately. And he automatically understood that we’d need a big plastic bag to take home all our ecologically correct, chic black cardboard takeout boxes.
Bottom line? Food-only costs for way too much food ran about $30 each (and now that you know about portion sizes, you’ll probably order less than we did, unless you’re anticipating a tasty second meal at home). We also lucked into some drink specials. Two rounds for five cost about the same as, say, two of the least-expensive bottles of wine at a typical better-neighborhood restaurant. So, gracias, Santana and associates — something tells me you’re onto something good. ■
★★★½ (Very Good to Excellent)
Hazard Center, 1370 Frazee Road, Mission Valley, 619-574-6800; mariamariarestaurants.com
HOURS: Monday–Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–11:00 p.m., Friday until midnight; Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–midnight; Sunday brunch, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $7–$15; soups, quesadillas, tortas, $7.50–$11; salads, $6.50–$14; entrées, $11–$19; sides, $2–$6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative, complex Mexican cuisine, well grounded in tradition. Interesting margaritas, plus mainly Mexican beers, reasonably priced wines, other cocktails.
PICK HITS: Seafood guacamole; duck tacos; roasted corn; fried plantains; Red Snapper Veracruzana; Surf and Turf; crab and shrimp-stuffed chiles relleños. Other possible good bets: coconut ceviche, steak taco, chicken “chivichangas,” seafood enchiladas suizas, braised short-ribs.
NEED TO KNOW: Free parking (valet at door, $4); live music Thursday–Saturday evenings. Happy hour 4:00–6:00 p.m. in bar, other nightly specials. Large portions, even of appetizers (great grazing!). Informal atmosphere with hard rock and reggae oldies played loudly but not painfully. Lots for lacto-vegetarians, including three entrées. Kiddie menu available.