Mexican standout

Cenaduria is exceptional in a sea of Tex-Mex

I try to keep my spirit lively, my mind open and I truly mean to muster anticipation for every new restaurant. But my mouth has a mind of its own: "Oh God, another Mexican restaurant," it sighs. Every one that opens promises it will be different, but after all, how much can you do with cheese and beans?

Cenaduria, a new restaurant on Greenville next to the Arcadia, has answered that question. The chef is from Mexico City. The food is out of this world. It's really not like other Mexican restaurants.

I'll begin at the beginning, although it was a slow start. Last week I threw the French-bread rule of thumb out the window (the bread indicates the quality of the kitchen. Hah!). This week it's the corollary salsa theory, that is, that the quality of a Mexican restaurant may be measured by its hot sauce. Not so. Cenaduria's hot sauce is terrible--it looks good, presented in a big pumice molcajete, and it's warm, which is nice and should bring out the flavor, but only points up that there isn't any. It's a thin, processed brew with a bare burn, but that's about it. The tostados are tasty. So what. So are Tom Thumb's.

So instead of wasting your drink time dipping, order a gordita with your beer. Two dollars gets you an ice-cream scoop of lush cream-green guacamole on a frill of lettuce beside a thick masa patty, grilled, slit and stuffed with chicken, chicharrones (fried pork rinds and skins), nopalito (cactus) or beef and literally dripping with flavor (though some might mistake it for grease). A gorgeous, soulful mouthful--full of skillfully balanced texture, unabashedly rich flavor, without a hint of fussiness. And for only two bucks. This is one of the best deals in town.

Mini-tacos are another non-nacho option, a ring of baby shells filled with seasoned meat, lettuce and tomatoes. Well, what would you expect in a taco, mini or otherwise? I know, they don't sound exceptional--tostado shells, meat, lettuce and tomatoes are the basics without which these wouldn't even be tacos--but they were exceptional. It's hard to make this food sound special--now I'll introduce my own rule of thumb, or mouth: The simpler the dish, the harder it is to translate from palate to paper.

Enchiladas a la Michoacana, for instance, are nothing more than three tender corn tortillas, dipped in a red-chile wash, folded around some cheese and topped with crunchy shredded cabbage and crumbled queso fresco. Enchiladas unplugged. But somehow, the simplicity of the one-note flavors--the slightly bitter twang of the chile, the underlying sweetness of the corn, the rich slide of the cheese and the (OK, I'm pushing it) percussive cabbage--makes a perfect chord. You can order it (and I recommend you do) with half a chicken, slow-cooked so it falls off the bone, plopped on the top and build your own bites by adding a bit of the sweet, tender meat to your fork with the enchilada and salad.

It's the little touches, the use of cabbage instead of iceberg lettuce, the earthy red-chile wash, and the queso fresco, that make this dish so special.

Pollo en Mole Poblano could be the same chicken, coated with a mole sauce smooth as syrup, thick as mud, rich as fudge, not sweet, but seductive, with just a little-bitty burn. Be sure to order extra tortillas--thick homemade corn ones--so you can roll your own soft mole taco, with a smear of guacamole, some shredded meat and sauce, maybe some strips of cabbage.

Alambre Yucateca is the Mexican version of shish kabob--tender chunks of grilled marinated chicken and beef served over "yellow" rice, which turned out to be the same tomato-tinted Spanish rice mixed with shrivelled peas and onions that was served with most of the entrees. Tightly packed flautas are filled with slow-cooked dark meat of chicken (haven't we met before?). Its reputation is not as expensive as white meat, but it's so much more flavorful, able to hold its own against the fried tortilla tube. All it needed was a touch of satin--I stole some guacamole from a friend's plate.

Cenaduria, in the hip corner location that was once Martini's, is still a work in progress. One room is dominated by a big bar, inherited from the days when the place was shakin' and stirrin'. There's a huge Aztec calendar painted on the wall of the niche off the high-ceilinged dining room. Since my first visit, a shrine has been added to the Virgin of Guadalupe and a collection of Mexican masks to the decorations. The owner plans to tile the floor and replace the pretty but flimsy carved pine tables and chairs with something more substantial, but it's a nice room as it is, somehow reminiscent of the dining room in an old-fashioned Mexican hotel.

Like a hotel dining room, Cenaduria (the word means dining room) is open for three meals a day, seven days a week--until four in the morning on weekends. The chef is constantly trying new dishes--the flan, which we'd heard is wonderful, wasn't available the night we were there, so he brought out a wineglass filled with peaches cooked in hot tequila, compliments of the house. He plans to serve them over vanilla-bean ice cream, which would be even better.

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