Fire & Spice, an’ Everything Nice

2008.Apr.05 Saturday · 8 comments

in Restaurants

“The Jalapeño takes its name from the city of Xalapa (Jalapa), Mexico where it is thought to have originated. The Jalapeño pepper has since gained tremendous fame due to its versatility in the food industry. Jalapeño Peppers are commonly found in most chain stores, processed sliced and canned. The Jalapeño features a sweet, but hot flavor and delivers approximately 4750 units of heat on the Scoville scale.”

– Roguelands Heirloom Vegetable Seeds Company

Buenos Aires – Not that the quote above is directly related to anything in this post, other than Xalapa, the capital city of Veracruz, Mexico, but it caught my eye as interesting. After my post less than a month ago about the restaurant Vera Cruz and my disappointment in the food there, I was practically ready to give up on Mexican food here in BsAs – a common enough occurence among those who like Mexican cuisine, a few months back I received an e-mail from a friend and travel guide writer who had just spent a couple of weeks trying to find one Mexican restaurant here worthy of being added to the updated version of the guide he’s working on. He hadn’t found one. Dave H commented on my post and recommended a place I hadn’t heard of, named after the aforementioned city, Xalapa, El Salvador 4800, in Palermo, 4833-6102. We approached it with skepticism – having been disappointed enough times – and he’d noted that he used to eat there regularly pre-2001 crash, though had been there since. The same friend who’d joined me at Vera Cruz agreed to giving it a go, and invited another friend of hers, who warned us that he’d been there, and “the food is good, though not a bit of spice”. Not promising.

Xalapa - guacamole and hot saucesLuckily, I’ve learned a few things over the nearly three years I’ve been here (time does fly, doesn’t it). The main one, especially when it comes to “ethnic food”, is that if the traditional is spicy, you can count on that the porteño version won’t be – but… if the owners or chefs are the real deal, or at least understand the original cuisine, they’re often happy to make it the right way. So after we’d perused the menu, which is a mix of relatively traditional sounding dishes from Mexico (somewhat limited on our visit by the lack of beef available in the capital – our waiter told us upfront that none of the beef dishes were available), if not the province of Veracruz in particular, along with a bit of a Tex-Mex thrown in, we picked out a few things – some guacamole and a surtido, or mixed selection, of quesadillas to start – my next question to the waiter was, “Is the food Mexican hot?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s porteño bland”. Gotta love the honesty, no? “Can we get it made Mexican style?” “No problem, I’ll tell the kitchen.”

Xalapa - mixed quesadillasExpecting little more than the addition of a few chopped hot peppers, we plunged into our appetizers. The hot sauce to accompany the chips on the table, bright, tasty, and medium spicy. The guacamole, fresh, smooth, creamy, I wouldn’t have minded a touch more salt, but really well made – quite promising. The quintet of quesadillas arrived – at first, good, but perhaps a trifle mundane – a ham and cheese, a mushroom, a plain cheese, and then we hit the jalapeño and cheese and the, hmmm… it was another pepper, poblano/ancho maybe… memory fails… and we broke a sweat. Really broke a sweat. Delicious! Things were looking up.

Xalapa - enchiladas de pollo almendradoAnd the main courses arrived. A plate of pork and salsa verde enchiladas, another duo of burritos – chicken and vegetable, and my own plate of enchiladas de pollo almendrado – chicken with an almond sauce, which the waiter had highly recommended (he also put it above the straightforward pollo almendrado, served with rice rather than in tortillas, as he said “the kitchen just doesn’t get the rice right”). Let’s just say, not only were these authentic, and tasty, they were on fire. And not just a few uninteresting peppers, or canned and pickled peppers, tossed into the mix, these were the sauces and fillings made right – with different chilies in each, a good amount of them without going overboard, and absolutely… yummy. No question we were sweating from the capsaicin, but we were loving every bite.

Reasonably priced for Palermo, too – for the two shared appetizers, three main courses, a couple of rounds of water, and a beer, with tip we paid 50 pesos apiece. No question I’ll be back there – not that I won’t check out the few remaining Mexican spots in town as I get to them, but this place goes to the top of the list right now. Kudos go out to Dave H for the recommendation!

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Sugar and Spice April 5, 2008 at 12:51

Hi Dan,

One thing to note though: It has been a while since I have been there, but I remember that the spicy dishes were available only on the weekends. I am not sure if that is still the case, but if you go during the week you might want to double check by calling first. This of course is only relative if they still do this.

I have resorted to growing my own peppers and they are coming about quite nicely I might add. I just enjoyed some chicken enchiladas last night myself, although home made ones. I am sure glad the wife can cook and picked up some tips from my mom. We also have some tortilla corn flour so we made our own tortillas as well.

Marc April 5, 2008 at 13:36

I’ve only tried about 3-4 Mexican restaurants up there and one thing I noticed is that they excel on some dishes but go terribly wrong on others. Well, that can be said for many restaurants, but in each case for these, they were extreme. La Flor Azteca was the last place I visited about a year ago or so. The two sauces they served with chips were extremely fresh and delicious. One had just a touch of heat, noticed by my wife not me. Still they were good.

I ordered stuff poblanos with a spicy tomato sauce–one of the hottest dishes on the menu–and my wife had some sort of fajita-type dish. The waitress made sure I knew it would be spicy and I said no problem. The dish was spot on authentic (peppers were almost habanero-size, maybe from a garden) and I actually broke a sweat. First time in any BA restaurant without having to ask for some sort of extra heat source. My wife’s dish, on the other hand, consisted of super dry bland shredded meat, about a spoon of guacamole, a spoon of some pico de gallo, and like 3 tortillas. My wife seemed to have liked it but I would have probably sent it back–something I’ve done only once or twice in my life.

There was a two couple party sitting next to us with one being from Mexico. Their waitress was Mexican and after chatting up a bit, she brought them a bowl of slivered onions, fresh chilis, and quartered limes. So I wonder if in some of these restaurants you just have to lie and say “yeah, I lived in Mexico for a few years, hook me up.” Like asking for the secret Peruvian menu at that place you recently visited in Abasto.

dan April 5, 2008 at 17:48

Marc – I think it just comes down to asking and making it clear you know what you’re talking about. Plus, of course, being friendly, a smile, chatting a bit, always goes alot further than the folks who go in “demanding” that things be done the way they want – something I see here more and more as tourism is increasing.

Frank – we were there on Wednesday night, so it seems like a good bet that it’s doable on weeknights. I do grow a few peppers myself, but it’s nice to be able to go out and eat something spicy around here! Now, where do you get the tortilla corn flour? I’d be making my own regularly if I had a good source of it…

Kevin April 7, 2008 at 00:27

I was immediately hesitant to try any more Mexican food until I found a worthy recommendation. The first two spots I tried made Taco Bell seem gastronomically enlightened. So I was excited when I found out Xalapa was nearby. We tried it and will certainly be back, food was great and there were tons of people there.

But my question is, if you’re looking for heat, why not go Peruvian? Can anyone suggest a place focusing on northern Peru in particular?

dan April 7, 2008 at 10:53

First off, most Peruvian food, even in Peru, isn’t remotely as spicy as Mexican food. But more importantly, they’re simply different cuisines, with different dishes. We eat at Peruvian places all the time (and I’ve plenty of writeups on this site about the places we’ve been and what I think of them), but it’s different food. It’s not really just about the heat/spice – it’s about various flavors and such – I could also go out for Indian curry, or Thai curry, or Korean (especially the spots in Barrio Corea) or Vietnamese here, or Bolivian, or simply bring along a bottle of hot sauce, but, when you want a good enchilada with mole sauce or something like the pollo almendrado above, you won’t find them at those places.

As to Peruvian food from the north, there are some places around that specialize in the cooking from the Trujillo area – there’s Primavera Trujillano in Belgrano which I’ve written up, Los Trujillanitos which I haven’t, but is on Corrientes a couple of blocks from the Abasto. They do an okay job, but not with any “wow” to them. So far our favorites for “authentic” Peruvian, based more on Henry’s assessment than mine, would be Contigo Peru and Solopescados, both of which I’ve written up – though neither is specifically northern cuisine.

I think the most important point, though, is that you have to ask – regardless of where you go, if it’s a cuisine that typically has some spice and heat to it, it’s often… “dumbed down” here for local palates – it’s the nature of catering to your primary clientele. But I think most places have figured out that there are more and more expats and visitors who welcome the more traditional and spicier versions, and are willing to make dishes that way, if you let them know – sometimes it means waiting a few extra minutes for your food while someone whips up a new sauce, but it’s worth it.

Sugar and Spice April 7, 2008 at 22:47

Hi Dan,

Oops, I forgot to mention that my mother brought it down for us. Now I know what I can bring for you in the future. There is just no comparison really.

I guess I will give Xalapa another chance. The dish you ordered looked pretty good and your description has given me hope that they have upped the ante.

dan September 29, 2009 at 23:03

So, went back for the first time in about a year to this spot, and a disappointing experience. First, service, about as inept as it was possible to be – our waiter managed to forget, completely, one main course (we didn’t bother to reorder it) and our bottled water (4 requests before we got it), and wanted to bring us a plate of arroz (rice), instead of agua (water) – how those relate, I couldn’t quite get. He was less than interested in requesting the kitchen make things spicy, and instead brought a small dish of hot sauce that, as my friend put it, we needed to dive into quickly before the vast quantity of a tablespoon evaporated – and, was about as spicy as cocktail relish. The food itself, delivered devoid of spice other than, once again on the quesadilla combination plate, two of the quesadillas had a faint drizzle of chili oil, no more than that. The one main course we did receive, a cochinita pibil, was not only devoid of spice and flavor, but had probably been sitting out on a steam line since early in the day – the shredded bits of pork dried out, nearly crusty, and served atop a couple of stale tortillas. Margaritas are now only available as “up” when frozen and therefore mostly ice, or “on the rocks” in the same glass, with a couple of huge cubes that take up somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the volume – no discernable tequila, sickly sweet and a bare dusting of salt on one part of the rim.

I can only guess that, perhaps, they’ve changed chefs, or, more likely, decided to cut corners wherever they can. Prices have definitely gone up since my original post a year and a half ago, for two margaritas, two beers, a bottle of water, guacamole, the combo quesadilla plate, and one main course – 152 pesos – given how much less food we got (not even accounting for the lower quality), it’s at least 50% higher in price since that time.

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