Long adored by locals for its Mexican (not New Mexican) eats, the summer's smoky demise of El Norteño’s Zuni location was mourned by many. But fear not, the place is back--in the Northeast Heights space vacated by Le Café Miche--to satisfy all your mole and ceviche cravings.
El Norteño’s new strip mall digs hardly resembles the French café that previously made its home there. Gone are all traces of Euro-inspired finery. The wine cellar now stands empty and walls are adorned with pieces of Mexico. Instead of being greeted with a tempting amuse bouche, chips and salsas are presented. In spades. When I expressed thanks for the generous setup (guacamole and salsa with endless chips on the house), I was told, “If you come all the way out here, we have to pamper you!”
The mission to reward diners for venturing “all the way out here” continues throughout the meal. Servers never cease to check on their tables, chips never stop coming and plates arrive and depart promptly. Each server we had was engaging. One was patient enough to offer gentle corrections as my friend practiced her Spanish, and another joined our conversation on upcoming travel plans.
Bright colors and flavors are all over El Norteño’s menu. There are the everyday offerings of burritos and tacos, but diners would do well to venture past these familiar dishes. Try the chicken mole enchiladas. The mole's blend of chile and spices delivers both complexity and comfort. And doused over simple chicken enchiladas, it's deeply satisfying.
Mexican food, by design, is a cuisine most at home ... well, at home. This is where El Norteño shines.
Pollo en salsa chipotle is an equally tasty chicken dish. Smoky and with no small amount of zing, the chipotle salsa is exciting and exotic; when served alongside moist chicken, the sauce's slightly vinegar bite causes taste buds to stand at attention.
Pescado Norteño pairs mild white fish with zesty flavors. The flaky fish holds up well under the rich creaminess of the sauce, heavy-handed as it was on my plate. Your choice of corn or flour tortillas provides an excellent method to deal with the overabundance.
Perhaps my favorite menu item is the carnes asadas. A slab of flank steak, admittedly a difficult cut of meat, is served perfectly grilled. Trading flavor for tenderness, the meat is heavily seasoned and marked with loads of texture. The dish is simple yet endlessly gluttonous when topped with pico de gallo.
Entrées are served alongside white rice cooked in broth with no evidence of overcooking. The beans are rich and full-flavored. As good as these accompaniments are, I can’t help but come back to a different combination: people and food. Mexican food, by design, is a cuisine most at home ... well, at home. Bringing it to a restaurant requires bringing the comfort and care of home along. This is where El Norteño shines.
Dutifully duplicating recipes day after day is one thing, but many restaurants fall short when they fail to reach beyond just cooking well. Cuisine is so much more than what's served on the plate. It's when food, atmosphere and people connect that a meal becomes a three-dimensional experience. That's how El Norteño strives to translate more than just the flavors of Mexico.
The Alibi recommends:
• Carnes asadas
• Pollo en salsa chipotle
• Chicken mole enchiladas
• Attempting to see just how endless the chips and salsas are
El Norteño, 1432 Wyoming NE, 299-2882. Hours: Mon-Sun 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Price range: $5.99 (bean burrito) to $8.99 (seafood items). Ambience: Like your best friend’s mom’s dining room. Credit cards, large parties, catering. In addition to the Wyoming restaurant, the original Zuni location is planned to re-open in February.