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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.

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