A couple years ago I sat in some fancy French restaurant watching two servers wheel a polished brass cart to my table. One of them fussed about a copper chafing dish for a moment then began to splash Grand Marnier over the delicate, sugarcoated pancakes within it. Flambé presentations build with heightened anticipation. So, with a final flourish and spark, the crepe suzette erupted, flames consuming the liqueur and condensing sugar, juice and citrus peel into an exquisite sauce.
Recently I chanced upon another, very different flambéed dish.
At Mario Sabino's, a new Salvadoran-Mexican place on Lemmon, they roll up with a much less impressive cart. No polished brass—and no flamboyant motion. The waiter simply flicks his wrist and without ceremony dumps a little liqueur into a shallow ceramic dish and—voila!—a flaming glob of stringy, already-melted cheese floating in a pool of orange chorizo grease.
Salvadoran appetizer sampler
(tamal, pupusa, chicharrones, casamiento,
curtido, yucca) $9
Queso con chorizo $9
Brisket enchiladas $10
Guiso de puerco $11
Pollo con hongos $12
More photos of Mario Sabino's and its offerings in our slideshow here.
I was trying to stifle a laugh, so I missed just how he caused the thing to ignite—a match, perhaps? Maybe a Bic lighter? Certain dishes lend themselves to showmanship, though I'm not quite sure chorizo con queso is one of them. Besides, the effort to glam up a common dip almost detracts from what we like about it—especially at Mario Sabino's, where the bitter residue of heated orange liqueur taints a dense, tangy queso draped over the robust sausage. You leave the table thinking, "I can't believe they just flambéed a wad of cheese."
Although the tableside show seems misplaced, Mario Sabino's strength rests in its standard of service. Waitstaff are always near, though rarely hover—somehow walking that fine line between "caring" and "overbearing" with only a few awkward stumbles. On slow nights they verge on one "how is everything" too many, yet they quickly retreat. The intrusion is so slight and their gratitude so evident, you end up welcoming the waiter's approach. Even their mistakes often end well. My dinner companion one evening had to ask three times for a refill of wine before someone finally brought a glass. She didn't complain (other than a little seething under her breath), but a manager apparently noticed and quietly struck it from our bill. On another occasion, the waiter kept insisting we order an appetizer sampler rather than individual plates. When we pointed to a couple interesting menu items, he dug in his heels.
And he was probably right to do so, for we ended up with a culinary tour of El Salvador on one tray.
Their pupusa carries a golden "straight from the griddle" caramelized taste, which plays nicely with curtido, the spicy-tart slaw Salvadorans love to slather on top of thick tortilla pastry. The black beans and rice staple known as casamiento looks gritty and threatening, yet presents a mellow, nutty and earthy character. Central America's version of the tamale, served in a banana leaf, wraps moist and creamy masa around a less impressive filling. Chicharrones—essentially fried pork rinds—capture you with an intense, charcoal sear, the pungent flavor of backyard grills.
For those who generally shy from common fare such as belly or rinds, the tough textural contrast—chewy at first with a fibrous finish—may take some getting used to. Keep in mind, however, the centuries spent perfecting working-class dishes. Collard greens, red beans and rice, chicharrones—these aren't meant for exquisite dinners, though some now appear on upscale menus.
Mario Sabino's aspires to be nothing more than a simple, Salvadoran restaurant—or it shouldn't anyway. Part-owner Mario Alfano (who teamed with Sabino Valle for this venture) once worked the front of the house at Gloria's, just down Lemmon Avenue. And while the menu will be familiar to fans of the Tex-Mex-Salvadoran chain, the cooking and presentation of Mario's new place feels more rustic, more honest than Gloria's.
Well, flaming queso aside.
The building still bears scars from its previous tenant, Casa Blanca, giving the restaurant a comfortable, lived-in appearance, despite a bright paint job. Parking is free in its scruffy lot, and guests who think they are fortunate enough to nab a window seat look out on pockmarked Lemmon Avenue and a flashing "Pawn Shop" sign. It's a setting almost guaranteed to bring your expectations down to earth, waiting for old-fashioned, home-style chicharrones to swoop in and win you over.
But only a portion of Mario Sabino's menu is Salvadoran, and little of the rest measures up to their starters. Venture beyond the appetizer platter, and you're confronted with brisket enchiladas combining arid, dust-dry beef and stale tortillas. Pollo con hongos is a fajita-style dish that saps the life from a hefty portion of onions and turns button mushrooms into sodden blobs, leaving supermarket-quality chicken to hold your interest.
I'll grant that the brisket enchiladas may have suffered from off-night malaise. We ordered these on a snowy eve the day before New Year's, when only two other couples occupied tables—although that shouldn't be an excuse. Local Tex-Mex and Latin American institutions, such as Mi Cocina and Gloria's, earned their place not through stellar cooking. Rather, they understand the value of consistency, of securing things from the bottom up. You can't say brisket presentations at Mi Cocina are the best around. But you do know exactly what to expect when you order.
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Hmm...maybe I should applaud Mario Sabino's for its unpredictable nature. One night I end up with forgettable chicken. A few nights later, a plate of guiso de Puerco—rich, fatty cubes of pork soothing the sharp character of its sauce, an interesting sweet and sour dressing with a spicy kick.
So the place faces a number of obstacles—location and the entrenched reputation of Gloria's being the most obvious. Its longevity may just depend on a couple of qualities it already has—genuinely concerned service and simple, engaging Salvadoran fare.
It's definitely not a cookie-cutter experience. But it feels lost between the popular sameness of a local chain and the more authentic ambience of a mom-and-pop operation. Kurt Vonnegut once used the phrase "unstuck in time" to describe those people who had lost touch with their cultural history. I suppose it's also possible to become "unstuck in place"—and, if so, that's what Mario Sabino's is: a restaurant in some strange limbo between destination and dive. Lighting queso on fire doesn't help matters much.
Mario Sabinos 5404 Lemmon Ave., 214-599-9744. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$