The Californication of Mexican cuisine has been a mixed bag. In trading fat for flavor and authenticity for familiarity, gutsy food tends to lose its soul — and its soulful satisfaction — as it chugs upscale. Cashing in on designer margaritas and splashy-looking plates can work in some markets (witness the flashy, celebrity-driven fall openings of Maria Maria and Coa in Contra Costa County), but urban diners aren't so easily seduced.
After decades of selling fatty burritos, Victor Hugo Juarez detected a changing attitude in his customers, how they hungered for something more healthful and authentic. "Finally I noticed that people were ready for something different," he said. So in September he opened Chilango, turning his 20-year-old Azteca Taqueria into a homage to antojitos, or "little whims." Here you'll find the kind of hand-to-mouth food you might stumble on in a stall in Mexico City: tacos campechano, a jumble of chorizo and skirt steak; or tacos de suadero, made with beef brisket. On the weekends, there's birria, a famous hangover remedy made at Chilango with Niman Ranch Kobe-style beef rather than the traditional goat. You might need a bowl after a trip to Mexico DF in the Embarcadero, the bar-restaurant where Juarez and his chef, Roberto Aguiar Cruz, were partners. Cruz got his start a decade ago washing dishes at Oakland's Fonda, famous for Mexican-style tapas. Working under chef David Rosales, Cruz was soon running the show.
Pressed between Aardvark Books and the Twilight Zone (a smoke shop), Chilango is alluring. The facade has the solid aspect of a Chicago Chop House but with a trace of the exotic, more like a Mayan temple.
Cruz has weaved together a stunning and sustainable menu (beef is grass-fed, poultry is free-range, pork is Niman Ranch). The masa dough is organic and spiked with cactus, giving the tortillas — which are cooked to order — a distinctive chew. Chips are gnarly, dark, and greaseless — a great foil for the chunky guacamole ($7 lunch, $8 dinner). Some of the 30 items on offer are enough for a meal, but it's a good bet to order two: one sublime, one sexy.
The pambazo ($6 lunch, $8 dinner) a fluffy, guajillo-sauced bun smothered with black beans and chorizo, had all the carnal satisfaction of a chili cheese dog. Another "drowned sandwich," the torta ahogado ($10 dinner), combined avocado with carnitas.
Ceviche de pescado ($10/$12) demonstrated Cruz' facility for finesse: stunningly bright bits of orange, avocado, and serrano blended with cubes of four-minute-marinated mahimahi for a dish to linger over (I've tried the ceviches at the formerly mentioned Contra Costa restaurants, and was disenchanted by my second bite).
Cruz' soups are made with clean, brown poultry stock. His pozole ($8/$10) is chock-full of nutty hominy and tender shredded meat, a meal in itself, while his sopa de tortilla, made with the same rich broth, is light, almost refreshing.
The menu stays fairly constant throughout the day, though prices and portions increase at 5 p.m. With 15 terracotta tables and only a few bar stools, Chilango fills up quickly for dinner. The open kitchen creates a lively, upbeat energy, echoed by 45 black-and-white photos on the wall of the streets of Mexico City taken by a cousin of Juarez'. A handful of wines, primarily soft reds offered by the bottle at retail prices, are produced by Latin winemakers from the Bay Area. They pair well with Cruz' street-smart food, including the flautas ($9/$12), stuffed crunchy cigars of shredded duck served on a delicate fresh tomato sauce under a flurry of Parmesan-like Cotija cheese. With a glass of Bodegas Aguirre Tempranillo ($9 glass, $27 bottle), from the Livermore Valley, it's a bit like eating rustic Italian.
The mild but complex dried chile sauce that soaks into flabby tortillas for Cruz's fresh cheese enchiladas ($7/$11) has a depth of flavor that goes on and on, calling more for wine than beer ($3-$4). The aguas frescas ($3) are definitely worth considering. The tamarind and hibiscus both had a food-friendly jolt of fruity acid.
Tacos run about $3 each (two per plate at lunch, three at dinner), and include options of filet mignon and pork maw. If you're with a crowd, consider ordering carnitas by the pound ($22) — it comes with guacamole, onions, and a pile of mini tortillas.
The servers on my visits demonstrated a kind of fierce pride in Chilango and in Cruz' food. One waitress felt compelled to justify the prices to us, though we made no complaint. "You have to pay for good food," she said. Another waiter eyed me suspiciously, asking where I lived, when I ordered some enchiladas to go. He was worried they wouldn't hold up over the drive.
I was pleasantly surprised by the checks, even though I had splurged on rather expensive desserts at lunch and dinner. Only half the sweets listed on the menu were available, but they were all excellent. An oversized flan ($8) arrived just set, both creamy and light, with deeply colored caramel. The pastel de tres leches ($8) was as rich as it could be, with a few strawberries to cut the milk fat.
In stressing flavor over flash, Cruz and Juarez have taken Mexican food to the next level without stripping it of its soul. They've given street food dining-room respectability, putting it on modern china, but without gussying up the food itself.
"Chilango" refers to the rural immigrants who made Mexico City feel like home by re-creating the food they loved. Now, with dishes such as Quesadillas Mexico City ($7/$11) — light and flavorful empanadas stuffed with spinach and poblanos and easily eaten by hand — we can all feel connected to their ancient culture.