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El Comal

3946 Illinois Street, North Park

With the passing of Chilango's in Hillcrest, I've begun a quest for other authentic Mexican restaurants in the city. By "authentic," I mean restaurants serving the wonderful, varied cuisines of mainland Mexico, rather than bare-bones Baja border food. (Tacos can only take you so far.) Over the years, I've spent seven or eight months on various vacations in Mexico exploring the mainland and eating royally. From the spicy chicken tamales sold (for a peso each) by the cook's kids at a gas station in Hermosillo, to the just-caught grilled shrimp in Guaymas, the scintillating huevos a la mexicana at a cheap Mexico City cafe, the whole snapper in Veracruz, the shrimp ceviche that marinated as we sailed on a fishing boat out of Cozumel, to the five-alarm chicken with peppers found on a back street in San Cristóbal de las Casas -- nearly every meal was terrific. But in San Diego, Mexican food generally gets little respect, mainly because we have so little of the real thing available here, merely endless variations on "the 'bertos."

My first destination (there will be more down the road) was El Comal, a mini-chain founded by Luz Herrera Ibarra, an Acapulco-born biology teacher turned restaurateur. El Comal specializes in multiregional homestyle cuisine, and when "Tin Fork" reviewed the original (now closed) Logan Heights location seven years ago, the writing took on that special glow Ed gets when the food is not just cheap but special (his fork may be tin, but his palate is a nobler metal). He told me, "You really ought to be the one reviewing this. Your readers would appreciate the seriousness of the kitchen." When El Comal opened its new branch in North Park a couple of months ago, I finally had the excuse I'd been hoping for.

Upon arrival, everyone in our group delighted in the charming converted house set back from the sidewalk, where two women awaiting dinner companions were blowing bubbles on a small front patio. The entrance fronts a larger patio, which seems to be used mostly at lunch in fair weather. That night, it was reserved for the kickoff party of the weekend's neighborhood Latino fiesta. Inside, we found a colorful room with alternating dark red and gold walls, a slanted slate-blue ceiling, and pale hardwood floors. Black-and-white photos -- Frida Kahlo, Mexican village scenes -- adorn the walls. The dim lighting comes from hanging lamps with Tiffany-style shades.

One wall is occupied by a cozy-looking wooden bar manned by a very busy bartender churning out tropical cocktails. I envied the recipient of his piña colada, a symphony in foamy white, but stuck to lower-cal margaritas on the rocks. (They proved delicious, and also low in alcohol -- I couldn't taste the tequila, nor could I feel any of its effects after two cocktails at each of the dinners I ate at El Comal.)

The long menu opens with a full page of antojitos, variations on stuffed or otherwise- garnished tortillas. On the mainland, these serve as appetizers, lunches, or snacks, rarely as dinner entrées -- which is why at El Comal you won't see any damn numbered "combination plates." There is, however, a botana, an appetizer sampler plate of mixed mini-antojitos. ("Serves three," says the menu. "Stuffs four" would be more accurate.) You get two mini-gorditas, two mini-quesadillas, two mini-sopes, two crisp rolled taquitos (e.g., flautas), and mild, smooth guacamole. We loved everything on the sampler -- especially the sopes, filled with savory stewed pork. The Tin Man was right -- the stuffing didn't taste like standard gringo-Mex but as if somebody's mother had cooked it with love. None of the fillings were spicy, but along with your initial basket of tortilla chips, you get a trio of house-made salsas: one smooth and mild, one chunky and medium, and one (it's green) chunky and fiery with serrano chiles. Spoon on at will. Our courteous server made sure to bring refills all through our meal as we used them up.

On a return visit with a different posse, we tried the tamal estilo Oaxaca, wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. The masa (dough) was reddish and a touch spicy, the pork filling sharp and tangy. A mulita boasted a handmade tortilla, softer and thicker than factory-made, wrapped into a sort of mini-quesadilla folded over shredded steak (or another meat of your choice), with melted cheese and guacamole. It'd make a perfect lunch.

I was curious to try the ensalada de nopal, strips of soft, grilled, de-spined and skinned "bunny ears" (opuntia) cactus, with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and a dusting of white Cotija cheese. (Cotija is often mistranslated as "Mexican cottage cheese," but it's named for the town in Michoacán where it's made, and it's more like cow's-milk feta -- typically packed as a solid block but easily crumbled.) We were all a bit disappointed because the salad was warm, undressed, and rather bland. I'm more familiar with a spicy Tex-Mex version served chilled, boasting pickled jalapeños, crunchy jicama matchsticks, and a sharp lime-juice vinaigrette. Seems like one of the few instances where Tex-Mex beats the mainland.

The tastiest and most interesting entrées come from the cazuelas (casseroles) section of the menu, which draws from numerous regional favorites. All these dishes are served with unusually light and pleasant refried beans and arroz mexicano, rice pilaf dotted with sweet nuggets of carrots and peas, plus those soulful house-made tortillas. At the first visit, we chose a couple of dishes that are relatively hard to find locally. Lengua en salsa verde boasted tender, succulent tongue slices, ideally matched with the slightly acidic tomatillo sauce. Barbacoa de chivo (barbecued goat) is not actually barbecued but stewed in a complex, finger-licking red sauce. It, too, was tender and mild flavored. Must have been a young goat, especially given the masculine case of the noun. Nobody's fool enough to feed up Billy Goat Gruff to feisty full maturity unless they need a stud for their nannies or a watch goat to keep trolls off the lawn.

At the next visit, mole poblano offered two pieces of tender chicken breast in an impressive house-made chocolate-based mole sauce with a nutty texture and a nice kick to it -- richer and gutsier than the typical nerdy renditions around town. (You'd be appalled at how many local restaurants' delivery doors disclose industrial-sized cans of Doña Maria commercial mole paste, right next to the buckets of Farmer John's lard.) Here the sauce is simultaneously sweet and spicy, almost winey in its complexity.

But the cazuela of cochinita pibíl was less successful. It always is. This classic from the Yucatán Peninsula features spiced pork in a tangy red sauce made with sour citruses; in its homeland, the mixture is steamed in a banana leaf. More common yet is a chicken version, pollo pibíl. In Mérida, these dishes are ubiquitous, a specialty at every restaurant except the Lebanese joints. (On my long-ago visit to Chichén Itzá, there were no food concessions in the ruins, just a lone vendor outside the front entrance peddling peeled oranges coated in dried red chile flakes. Our explorations eventually made us hungry. "What this place needs is a pollo pibíl stand," I grumbled. "We should go into business and open one," said my cousin Peggy. "We could call it Itza Chicken!") But every time I tasted either of the pibíles in Mérida, the pork was dry and oversalted, the chicken desiccated. At El Comal, the pork is moist -- but it was unbearably salty that night. I don't know why I keep ordering this dish -- probably because it's so famous that I'm convinced somebody somewhere must make a lovable version. I just haven't found it yet.

One of the acid tests of a Mexican restaurant in San Diego is fish. On both coastlines of mainland Mexico, I've found seafood ultra fresh and treated with great care. Up here, restaurants of every ethnicity are prone to serving dry fish, with Mexican restaurants among the worst sinners. At El Comal, we ventured on a filete de huachinango al ajillo (red snapper filet in garlic butter). The thin filet was seasoned and seared on one side only, keeping it moist and tender. The garlic sauce was equally flawless -- not one burned morsel besmirched it. The flavor is, of course, "garlicky." We were thoroughly pleased; the alternative, veracruzano (with onions, tomatoes, and capers or peas), is better suited to a whole snapper (which is also available most nights), since it might easily overwhelm so delicate tasting a filet.

One of El Comal's delights is that you can order breakfast dishes at any hour -- and the breakfast menu includes chilaquiles. (My friend Marcie was delighted that I wanted to order them, while for Dave and Marty it was a new pleasure they won't soon forget.) This sublime peasant dish consists of yesterday's tortillas cut in strips and sautéed, then covered with red or green sauce (we chose green) and topped with chopped sweet onion, Cotija cheese, and crema mexicana (which is closer to crème fraîche than to American sour cream). Here, the dish comes with eggs on the side. (Sometimes the eggs are scrambled into the sauce; there's even a baked casserole version where raw eggs are beaten into the mixture and the whole shebang is baked.) The thick, house-made tortillas at El Comal lend a slightly heavy texture, and because of them, I'd have liked a little more of the salsa verde for balance.

The one menu area to approach with caution (if at all) is the grilled meats, unless you prefer them cut skinny and cooked extra well-done. At the first dinner, we tried a parrillada (mixed grill) that "serves two" (meaning four to six). The parrillada proved to be a metal plate set atop a four-walled contraption with a Sterno flame in the center. The array included thin smoked pork chops, thin spice-rubbed pork chops, paper-thin steak, chicken breast, and fingers of nopal cactus, plus (on the side) guacamole, beans, rice, and pico de gallo salsa. All the red meats had already been grilled well-done (the chicken to medium-well) before they hit the metal plate, and the Sterno cooked them further even as we ate them. Unfortunately, our table wasn't large enough to accommodate an extra plate where we could move them off the heat.

El Comal offers more house-made desserts than the usual sole choice of flan. There is tres leches cake, rompope (eggnog) cake, chocolate cake, and fried plantains with a dip of sweetened condensed milk. Alas, they were out of the tres leches at both my visits. The rompope was a light-textured yellow cake with extremely sweet frosting, altogether tasting more of sugar than rum. The plátanos were not quite maduros (ripe) enough, hence a little tough and coarse. All in all, I wouldn't go out of my way to save room for dessert unless the tres leches is available and you want to try it.

El Comal's North Park location has instantly become a kind of community center for neighborhood Latinos (which is why you need to reserve for dinner even on the most unlikely weeknight). On a Tuesday-night visit, it hosted some sort of start-your-own-business session with the involvement of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, and my gang got the last free table. On a Thursday, a long line of tables arranged side-by-side against the window wall slowly filled up but for the two empty seats at the end by the door. Then the beautiful birthday girl and her boyfriend arrived at the surprise party, greeted by an unholy shriek of welcome. A guitarist took his seat at a platform in the corner of the room and commenced singing, while the whole party sang along heartily. The birthday girl had a good voice and true sense of pitch. Some of her friends, louder, had neither. Yet they were very well behaved -- much better mannered than the sloshed suits and girls'-night-out-gone-wild types populating parties I've unwillingly attended in pricey restaurants in La Jolla, Del Mar, O.B., et al. But with no carpeting, tablecloths, or chair cushions to dampen the sound, it was certainly not a quiet end to the evening. I was kind of hoping that the musician would strike up the lovely norteño (Tex-Mex) classic "Canción Huasteca" so I could shock and awe my posse by singing along on the chorus ("Quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento"), but it didn't come up before we left.

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