For Better or Worse

2011.Jun.12 Sunday · 1 comment

in Restaurants

“It’s hit and miss, you have achievement and failure.”

– Thomas Haden Church, actor

I’m not sure why it is, but one of the most common questions I get asked about in regard to restaurants is “where to find a good Mexican restaurant?” The real answer is 4,500 miles north of here in Mexico City, get thee on a plane if what you want is Mexican food (okay, there are points closer in Mexico, but probably none with direct flights). I realize that many norteamericanos in particular, though also Europeans of one ilk or another, have little concept of geography and Latin American culture, and there’s somehow this vision that anywhere south of the border with the U.S. ought to have spicy nachos and burritos, but it just ain’t so. As I said to someone who asked yesterday, there’s just not much call for “real” Mexican food here given that there’s a Mexican population of about 10 people in Buenos Aires (the number is actually estimated at 6,750 for the whole country, but you get the idea).

Given the generally picante-averse palate of the porteño culture, there’s simply no call for authentic Mexican food. Except from us expat types missing it from back home, and some clueless visitors. About three years (4/08) ago I came across Xalapa, El Salvador 4800 in Palermo, 4833-6102. We were actually reasonably impressed on that first visit. Specifying that we wanted our food made spicy it actually arrived so, and everything was fresh and fairly well seasoned. Service was great, the ambiance was fun. It was a winner. On return visits, however, that bloom seemed to fade. The food was hit and miss, one time it would be made spicy, another time not. Service was as different as the hills and valleys of a roller coaster – dependent not only on which waitperson showed up at our table, but, seemingly, day of the week or hour of the day. If you scroll down to the comments following the linked original review, you’ll see my more detailed thoughts just a year and a half later (9/09) – a completely different experience.

Xalapa

It’s still a relatively pretty room, though getting a tad faded and worn, perhaps time for a paint job and spruce up, replace some of the tablecloths that are getting a little raggedy, etc. The entryway is now dominated by a couple of frozen margarita machines and a big basket of tortilla chips with bags of supermarket chips under the table that they clearly just empty into it as needed. Interestingly, in contrast to that first visit, the clientele has become less expat and more local – by the time we left on our visit last week the place was more than half full and it was all young Argentines, sucking down frozen margaritas and Coronas and daring each other to dip into the “hot” sauce. Our waitress was about as uninterested in taking care of us or any of her other tables as could be and did everything short of yawn and tell us how bored she was with the idea of being there, trudging back and forth with drinks and food and rolling her eyes at each request.

Xalapa - quesadillas

We tried two different orders of quesadillas – the pibil version with a few shreds of pork and gobs of oozing, bland cheese – kind of like the tortilla enclosed version of an Argentine pizza – and likewise the rajas (which should be roasted strips of chilies with onions and spices), which managed a couple slices of pickled jalapeños tempered by mostly just chopped pieces of uncooked red bell pepper – after all, wouldn’t want too much spice now, would you? I’m not sure there would have been any chilies at all had we not specified picante.

Xalapa - tacos al pastor

I have to give them props for the filling on the tacos al pastor – it was not only quite good but plenty spicy as well. The corn tortillas underneath, not so much, they’re certainly not “homemade”, as a guess, they’re simply bulk-packed supermarket ones that are the equivalent of the soft ones from a brand like El Paso in the States. Flavorless, not a bit toasted, just right out of the bag, and even a trifle stale around the edges – a major contrast to the flour tortillas on the quesadillas, which even if they were a commercial brand of some sort at least had been grilled to pick up a nice char.

Xalapa - enchiladas verdes de pollo

The enchiladas verdes de pollo just weren’t what they were that first time around (the pork version that time). It wasn’t so much the chicken filling, which was fine, but the salsa verde, which was not. Instead of four nicely rolled, properly made enchiladas in flour tortillas, it was two slightly overstuffed, partially open “U”s of somewhat crisped corn tortillas. Instead of a smooth, creamy green sauce with bright flavors of cilantro, oregano, garlic and chilies, this was an oily mess of, well, we weren’t really sure – there was some oregano flavor in there, but mostly it just tasted like old oil and something vaguely green. And the “sour cream” was not the tasty homemade version that they’d served up that first time either, instead some sort of slightly thickened and starchy tasting white sauce, to be honest, I’m not sure it wasn’t just simply bechamel. The chopped up mozzarella atop did nothing for the dish.

So, hit and miss indeed has been the experience over the last couple of years. I can’t quite decide whether to downgrade it to just okay from recommended, mostly because the unfortunate thing is that it’s still probably the best game in town for Mexican food – but that’s only by contrast to the poor quality of what’s on offer in other spots. The value is certainly less, with prices about double what they were three years back (like most places), but the portion size having been cut down and quality plunged. It may be time to start searching out whether or not there are any other alternatives out there – I know there are at least a couple we haven’t visited, mostly based on reports from friends. Any suggestions?

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