3001 Beech Street, San Diego
This restaurant is closed.
Contrary to rumor, Cinco de Mayo is not "Mexico's July Fourth." The real Mexican Independence Day is September 16, and in its honor, some genius cook invented a spectacular treat that mirrors the red, white, and green of the national flag. Chiles en nogada consist of mildly spicy green poblano peppers stuffed with meat, fruits, and nuts, topped with a ground-walnut cream sauce, and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds. Can you find this dish in San Diego? Rarely, and not at the corner taqueria. At Chilango's, though, chiles en nogada is one of many year-round specialties offering genuine flavors from mainland Mexico.
The cheerful little restaurant first catches your eye with the big green umbrellas that shade its sidewalk dining patio. The interior is a warm Aztec gold, decorated with colorful craft objects and hacienda-style straight-backed wooden chairs, which are remarkably comfortable. The ambient music is eclectic -- one evening, it switched back and forth between cool vocal jazz and hot Latin love songs.
A glance at the menu tells you that you've come to the right place for genuine Mexico City cuisine, rather than "border Mex" compromises. There are no combo plates on the dinner menu -- in Mexico, tortilla dishes are mainly eaten for lunch or snacks, seldom for supper. Chilango's choices offer platos of seafood, meats, and chicken (plus a few elaborate enchiladas), each featuring its own unique sauce and accompaniments. At lunch, when tortilla wraps are appropriate, Chilango's still veers from the ordinary with its choice of four fillings and six regional sauces -- none the generic "rojo."
Even the guacamole is honest -- not a lazy line cook's purée but traditional roughly mashed avocado with cilantro, onions, and tomatoes. The snowy topping of panela cheese may be superfluous, but it's so mild and fluffy it doesn't get in the way. An odd variation, "mango guacamole," includes mango chunks, roasted chile poblano strips, and grilled onions with avocado. It's refreshing but not to all tastes -- my partner disliked it. Either way, alas, the dish comes with low-grade commercial tortilla chips creeping toward staleness. The accompanying ramekin of mouse-brown hot salsa is not the least mousy in taste, although its spice level changes from night to night. "Very picante," warned the waitress at our first visit, setting it down with a gesture resembling an anti-vampire sign of the Cross. We could actually smell its heat. Next visit, it was easier to handle, although the tingle still clung to our tongues. Along with tomato, garlic, and chipotles (which are consistent from can to can), the sauce is based on roasted fresh jalapeños, which vary from one pepper to the next. Proceed with care before you slather.
A loose saffron-colored page in the center of the menu catalogues the evening's specials, and that's where we found chiles en nogada. It's so regular a "special" that it's listed on the website menu, and the chef-owners promise that they serve it nightly. The moist, luscious filling is made with lean ground sirloin mingled with chopped bananas, peaches, raisins, almonds, and...cherry liqueur! For the topping, ripe chopped strawberries substitute for the customary hard-to-find pomegranate seeds. The berries were a kick, although we wished they'd been hulled more carefully. The menu attributes the dish to Mexico City (because that's where the owners are from), but food historians ascribe its invention to the gifted nuns at a convent in Puebla -- the same convent that's credited with creating spiced chocolate sauce for turkey (mole poblano). Whatever its origin, the dish is a natural for the season: On the Mexican mainland, pomegranates and young white walnuts are harvested in September. Chilango's exuberant rendition is an unconventional recipe with authentic Independence Day spirit.
Most evenings, you'll also find Oaxacan camarones con espinaca (shrimp with spinach) on the specials list. This simple dish features grilled tiger prawns of exceptional sweetness, robed in melted Chihuahua cheese and set atop a bed of lightly cooked baby spinach. Chihuahua cheese is a luxury in the mouth -- softer and richer tasting than mozzarella or jack, but still mild. I wish that more local Mexican restaurants would use it in place of those yellow-and-white imitation-sawdust blends. The only flaw was that the spinach was carelessly drained that night, gradually exuding so much water that the plate came to resemble an algae-covered pond.
The servers know what they're about. That scorching evening, I told the waitress, "I need a margarita now!" She answered, "You got it, Mama!" The margaritas are made with wine derived from agave cactus juice (the same plant that's distilled into tequila), and thanks to lots of fresh-squeezed lime juice, the drink tastes both good and genuine. The cool thing about an icy wine margarita on a hot night is that if you gulp down the first one, you can order seconds (plus) without reeling when you leave.
A few nights later, the temperature was 90 degrees at 6 p.m. My partner and I were meeting up with Lynne and Fred, who arrived separately. We chose an outdoor table, since the interior has no aire acondicionado. Lynne soon joined us, having walked a few blocks from her home in Mission Hills (lucky gal). She'd eaten at Chilango's once before and loved her date's chiles en nogada: "When I heard what was in it, it sounded too crazy," she remembered. "But at first bite, I was knocked out." She hadn't enjoyed her own dish as much. "I ordered the chicken in chipotle cream sauce. I like spicy food, but that was just too hot for me." Fred now called from his car. He was caught in traffic and would be late -- we should go ahead and order for him. Fred has spent a lot of time in Guadalajara and Guanajuato, so nothing on the menu would be out of his bounds.
He arrived in time to taste the last of the guacamole, moments before our ensalada Yucateca arrived. This main-course salad, which includes a choice of protein (grilled chicken, fish, or roast pork), was inspired by the tropical fruits of the Yucatan Peninsula, where a common street snack is a peeled orange (or a paper cone of pineapple chunks) coated with hot red chili powder. The salad is, of course, not nearly that fierce, although it did have a nip to it -- just the right amount of spice for our posse. The cast of characters includes chunks of green apples, pineapple, tangerine, and orange over romaine lettuce tossed with raspberry vinaigrette. Buried in the mound was the shredded roast pork enmolado, meaning robed in mole sauce. The meat tasted as if it had been marinated in citrus juice, too. The salad would have been fine without it, but the pork was delicious and a brilliant match for the fruits and the fruity dressing.
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."