Sweet southwest



A new Mexican restaurant opens nearly every month on the southwest side, it seems, so owners need a hook that will set them apart. Norberto Garita, co-owner and chef at El Barzón, has two: He offers house-made moles from his native state, Puebla, and his menu includes an Italian page.

Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, is famous for its moles (MO-lays), and the best-known, mole poblano, is named for the state. Mole simply means sauce, and poblano, "from Puebla." Many North Americans will tell you that mole is a chocolate sauce, tickled to think of treating their chicken thigh like a hot fudge sundae. Yes, there's chocolate in a mole poblano, but it's only one of many ingredients, and the result has nothing to do with Sanders.

Garita's vibrant mahogany-colored mole poblano is about the best I've had. Besides a chunk of bitter chocolate, it includes platanos, anise, guajillo and pasilla chiles, cinnamon, almonds, sesame seeds, toasted bread, oregano, cumin, garlic, onions, tomatillo, "a lot of work and a lot of time," according to Garita. The result has an unusual rich, fruity taste, much less cumin-y than most moles I've tried. The chiles dry for a week or two, are deseeded, and then ground with the other dry ingredients in a hand mill. Other ingredients are sautéed and puréed. When a customer orders, chicken broth is added.

Found far less often in this area is pipian, a pale green sauce made with pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, chile verde and hierba santa, a leaf brought from Mexico. The sauce has an unusual nutty taste that I hadn't encountered elsewhere.

The sauces are served over boiled chicken, or, says the menu, tamales. I was sad to hear that Garita has discontinued the tamales for lack of takers. When he makes them for a party, they're stuffed with beans and hierba santa. Perhaps popular demand could bring them back.

Mexican restaurants tend to divide, to put it crudely, between those who cater to gringos and those for a hometown crowd. The words "chimichanga," on the one hand, or "menudo," on the other, tell the tale. El Barzón offers menudo with not only tripe but tongue and beef-foot gracing the soup. When sick with a cold, I ordered instead a container of chicken pozole, served with chicharron (pork cracklings). This is comfort food supreme — rich, homemade broth, tender spheres of hominy taking the place of another culture's noodles. There's a bit of bite to the broth, but just enough to make it even more of a comfort food — after all, you need something to wake your taste buds up when you're sick — and the crunchy chicharron is a guilty pleasure.

The taco offerings — $1.25 for a double-wrapped corn tortilla, $2.25 for flour — also include tripe, tongue and barbecued goat alongside the more familiar offerings. The goat is piled high and has its own good mild flavor (not barbecue sauce). The chorizo is strong, with bright-orange juices seeping out. There are tortas, empanadas and enchiladas, as well as a list of seafood dishes including fish soup and seafood soup.

One way to tell whether a restaurant is paying attention is to look at the smaller dishes, the ones that everyone offers. In a Mexican restaurant, that means the mole rojo and mole verde, red or green sauce, served with the opening chips. At El Barzón, it's hard not to fill up before you order. The green sauce, in particular, shows off a succession of flavors, none of them searingly hot.

Another test is simple beans and rice. I usually avoid the refried beans that come with Mexican dinners, choosing restaurants that keep their beans whole and spicy, such as Señor Lopez or Taqueria Lupita's. But instead of the usual hard, dry and tasteless slab, Garita's beans are blended pale and creamy, an excellent accompaniment to spicier main courses.

We also tried a few Italian dishes, which are not of the spaghetti-and-meatball variety but more interesting. Garita was a sous-chef at the upscale Il Posto for eight years, and he offers penne with eggplant, spaghetti with mixed seafood (allo scoglio) and fillet of sole, for example, as well as pizzas.

My first reaction to the spaghetti alla carbonara was that it was too saucy and cheesy — I like mine drier, with evidence that the hot pasta has cooked the egg right in the pan. The pancetta and pecorino were authentic, though, and the dish was much improved when nuked the next day. Pennette alla vodka is creamy and tastes of fresh tomatoes, but an antipasto of Italian sausage with potatoes, tomatoes and peppers felt randomly thrown together. Housemade tiramisú was about average; better is the generous serving of thick flan.

I recommend El Barzón for its soups and its moles of all kinds, as well as its exceptionally friendly waitstaff, and I look forward to trying more of its dishes. There's no liquor license yet. It's open seven days for lunch and dinner.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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