February 22 - 29, 1 9 9 6
Mexican Cuisineby Stephen Heuser
Hours: Tues through Sun, 5 to 10 p.m., Closed Mon
Brunch Sat and Sun 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Handicap access: sidewalk level
AE, MC, Visa
Mexican food may have improved a bit in Boston in the past few years, but even the widest survey is bound to be disappointing, especially if you're interested in anything beyond the usual yuppie Tex-Mex variations.
For the past several years, the antidote has been a Cambridge joint called Mexican Cuisine.
If they'd gotten any more minimalist with the name, I'd be reviewing a place called "Restaurant." And the name isn't even the least pretentious thing about Mexican Cuisine. That would be the décor, which is sort of neo-retro-neighborhood bar. In fact, we're in a neighborhood bar, the fake-walnut-paneled Forest Café, where a row of inert regulars nurses longneck Buds under a framed photo of Babe Ruth and a pair of TVs tuned to Wheel of Fortune. A low partition separates the bar from the narrow restaurant, with its broad take on Mexican decoration (woven rugs, tiny potted cactuses, the ubiquitous Aztec calendar) and its parties of game Cantabrigians puzzling over entrees like "Enfrijoladas" and "Enchiladas Trotsky."
The prices here are higher than you might expect. But Mexican Cuisine can get away with it, because if what it offers isn't exactly perfect, it's rare enough to merit $10 to $14 an entree. The cooking -- how to put this? -- is just more Mexican than you see anywhere else in New England. I've had tostadas served on English muffins in New Hampshire, and quesadillas stuffed with smoked salmon and goat cheese in the Back Bay, but this is the first place in the East where I've seen three kinds of mole on a menu.
What Mexican Cuisine serves looks more like home cooking than restaurant food. You get a piece of meat, a pool of sauce, and a pile of rice and beans. But the sauces are rich and subtle, and beyond the bottles of Bud, the bar's got a pretty good selection of beer on tap. You can also get a frothy, lime-heavy margarita on the rocks, and a strong, clear sangria with sliced fruit in the glass.
The drinks are better than the tortilla chips provided as pre-meal snacks, which are the usual store-variety yellow chips, not even terribly fresh. But the accompanying salsa -- smooth, hot, with bits of onion and cilantro -- isn't bad. And the chips were just the thing for scooping up one of the appetizers, the sopa princessa ($2.95), a dark, silky, almost purplish black-bean purée with a dollop of sour cream in the middle, garnished with rings of raw onion. To round out a classic first course, you might match that with the chiles relleno ($5.50), an Anaheim chili stuffed with cheese, roasted instead of fried, and served with a chipotle-flavored sauce.
For the more adventurous, the calamares en chileajo ($5.50) are the closest thing on the menu to what we think of as new-Mex cooking: sautéed squid with chopped garlic, lime, and serrano chilis. And the mejilliones mexicanas ($4.95) were the largest mussels I've ever eaten, a bit sandy, served in a tomato-based broth ringing with cilantro, onion, and chili.
The unlikely star of the appetizer menu was ejotes ($4.95), green beans sautéed with garlic, lime, and ground sea salt. Even on a recent February night, with the beans wrinkled and wintry, the dish was vibrant, tangy, and more alive than green beans have any business being. The ejotes were listed on the specials menu, but (trade secret) you can order them anytime. Except maybe breakfast, although I'd probably eat them then, too.
The Enchiladas Trotsky ($10.95) were appropriately red and appropriately subversive: a blue-corn tortilla was stuffed with smoked mozzarella, of all things, then garnished with a plain tomato sauce and Mexican fresh cream, which has a taste somewhere between sour cream and crème fraîche. We were puzzled by one of the flavors in the enfrijoladas ($10.95), six-cheese enchiladas garnished with black beans and cream. They had an intriguing hint of something sweetish, pungent, and anise-tasting, which turned out to be hojo santa, a favorite herb in southern Mexico but rarely seen in the US.
Actual anise seeds made an appearance atop the entree with the longest name on the menu: Chuletas Ahumadas en Mole "La Circumstancia" ($11.95). These were smoked pork chops buried in a sauce the menu described with a wink as "nuevo wavo": a chipotle-and-raspberry mole. The raspberry was hard to detect, but the mole (a savory chocolate-based sauce) was interesting and unapologetically non-sweet.
Mexican Cuisine specializes in seafood, and the menu lists nine catch-of-the-day dishes. The fish our night was mahi-mahi, and the Pescado Zarandeado ($12.95) sounded like a treat: grilled fish served in a roasted-tomato-and-chili sauce, with a salad of cactus, jicama, and other fresh stuff on top. But the fish was grilled to an overfirm whiteness, its flavor in retreat beneath the overpowering sauce and limp salad. This odd combination of cold tossed vegetables and hot fish was easily outclassed by the pescado con mole verde ($12.95), the same grilled mahi-mahi served with a wonderfully complementary rough green sauce of tomatillos, poblano chilis, and ground pumpkin seeds and peanuts.
The award for strange sauce of the week goes to Camarones al Maya ($12.95). The Maya, for all we know, may have eaten their shrimp in a sauce made of tomato, chipotles, and sour orange. Or maybe they didn't: it's a risky-seeming dish, and who knows how many Mayan cooks were beheaded for serving this one? The effect is fascinating, if not to everyone's taste, with a chili bite and a flavor perhaps a bit intense for the shrimp.
Every dinner at Mexican Cuisine is rounded off with unadorned white rice and black beans. You could make an argument for their plainness as balance to the sneaky spiciness of the sauces -- and you could probably make a better argument for their plainness as authenticity -- but for $11 an enchilada, they could have exhibited more spark.
You won't find any desserts at Mexican Cuisine, so you'll have to trek to Emack & Bolio's, a block toward Porter Square. Also, a warning: the spot is hidden but hardly secret, and by 8 p.m. on a recent Wednesday a line had begun to form for tables.