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.