3172 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
A couple of weeks ago, my husband came back from a work trip and we decided to grab something to eat at Barrio Star, the newish restaurant in Banker’s Hill purveying “Mexican Soul Food.” As lovers of Mexican restaurants, the cool decor of Día de los Muertos skulls and white vinyl booths, the interesting-sounding margaritas, and the fact that the restaurant attempts to fuse a current fascination with all things local and sustainable with regional Mexican cuisine intrigued us. The overpriced food, however, was only so-so — my husband’s kindly raised chicken was too dry, overwhelmed by the rice and beans, and the lime-laden guacamole made us pucker our lips (and not in a good way). Also, the restaurant’s chic space is not terribly comfortable — we were sitting between two couples and could hear their entire conversations. Barrio Star sells an image of hip Mexican cuisine that strays far from the working-class roots the term “soul food” suggests. We wished we’d kept walking (instead of shelling out $100 for dinner and blood-orange margaritas), for just up the street is a true neighborhood institution that actually delivers food for the soul: Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café.
This diner has been at the corner of 5th and Spruce since 1991, in one incarnation or another. A few years ago, Carter opened a second restaurant in Mission Hills that also specialized in Mexican food. When running two restaurants became untenable, he combined them into the larger Hillcrest/Banker's Hill location and rechristened the place Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café. With chef Dulce Huicochea running the kitchen, diners can indulge in all manner of authentic regional cuisine, along with standard enchilada plates or even hamburgers (a holdover from the old Jimmy Carter’s Café).
So, last night, after a long day, my husband, son, and I bypassed all the trendy spots and headed instead to Jimmy Carter’s. As we settled into one of the quiet booths that line the front of the restaurant, I took in the vivid fuchsias, teals, canary yellows, and chili-pepper reds of the decor. Our server, a sweet college woman who’s been working at the restaurant for the past couple of years, welcomed us. She brought my husband and I pints of Stone Pale Ale, a jamaica for our son, and a basket of freshly made tortilla chips and the restaurant’s trio of house-made spicy tomato-and-cilantro salsa, searingly hot jalapeño salsa, and clove- and oil-marinated carrots.
I piled carrots on a chip and surveyed the standard-sounding menu: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, tostadas, and so on. Then I noticed the sauces. There are several to choose from, each providing a taste of regional Mexican specialties. Of particular note is the Tlaquepaque sauce, a deliciously piquant creamy jalapeño concoction that tastes fantastic on fish or chicken. My husband was torn between ordering that or one of the specials of the day, chicken enchiladas with green pipián sauce (which is what he ended up with). I decided on a comforting chicken-tortilla soup, which was so good my child ordered his own cup (and a lightly grilled shrimp taco). On other visits, when needing something more substantial, I order the carnitas, flavorful chunks of stewed pork fried quickly, crispy on the outside and tender as you bite into them. The dish comes on an overflowing platter with guacamole, pico de gallo, either black or homemade refried beans, rice, and a small shredded salad sprinkled with queso fresco. Our son got his usual kids’-menu item of a bean-and-cheese burrito, which he gobbled down happily.
The specials are where the chef lets her imagination go wild. One night, I had seared salmon soft tacos with a creamy white sauce and shredded cabbage; my friend ordered eggplant relleno stuffed with a zesty poblano chili and Oaxacan white cheese. Like the carnitas, all plates are satisfying with no stinting on the main course, and prices are well below what you’d pay up the street at Barrio Star. The environment is calm and inviting — you can have conversations without shouting, and the wait staff remembers who you are. Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Café breakfasts (both American and Mexican-style) shouldn’t be missed, and the restaurant has a full bar that serves solid margaritas, local microbrews, and Kenwood wines. ■