Simple Mexican, hold the sauces
It’s an unusual arrangement. Robi Islam, the owner of the South End restaurant Siraj Cafe, closed his doors in February - only to reopen them in May as a Mexican restaurant called El Centro. In the interim, the interior was entirely renovated, with the result that it oddly resembles the popular South American restaurant Orinoco just across the street. (The new tiled ceiling, for instance, is almost an exact match.) Portraits of the immortal actor Pedro Infante and a pensive Frida Kahlo now overlook the transformed space, from places on the wall where Buddha and Ganesh once reigned.
Islam’s new business partner, Allan Rodriguez, owns the construction company that did the renovation. Rodriguez also helped find a new staff, nearly all of whom are from Sonora, Mexico. Dishes of that region are, as you might expect, the focus of the new menu. Both men are there nearly every night, and the interplay between them, their untested Spanish-speaking employees, and the high-maintenance clientele could be just what NBC needs for an 8 p.m. time slot.
El Centro’s unannounced “soft opening’’ in May gave me pause. Prices were high ($18 for one stuffed pepper), and the food was merely passable. Six weeks later, both problems are being addressed. You will now spend only double what you might in a good Mexican place in East Boston. “The ingredients we use are the best available,’’ explains Islam, “and this is the South End.’’ In this part of Boston, El Centro enjoys a monopoly on the genre.
The good news is that quality has become consistent, and some dishes exceptionally good. Pricing appears to be a work in progress: chips and salsa are $5, but if you make a face, they come for free. Practice your best look of shock before you head over.
A favorite among dinner mates, various neighboring diners, and the waitstaff is the shrimp in chipotle sauce ($16). Rodriguez simmers dried chopped chipotles in homemade chicken stock with onion and garlic, then fortifies the reduction with Mexican cream. Separately, fresh shrimp is flash-sauteed, then mixed with the warm sauce. It’s as good as it sounds. The pastel-orange dish has a broad spiciness that would not be out of place in, say, Thailand. But the dish is pure and traditional Sonora, and perfectly done, with plump shrimp and heat that does not overwhelm them.
The most impressive item is the simplest: flour tortillas, made in-house using Rodriguez’s father’s recipe (flour, vegetable shortening, butter, scant sugar). Here they are fresh, fragrant, and almost paper-white. The taste is reminiscent of pie crust. You get a half-dozen or so with certain dishes, and they are used for all the taco varieties. The meat for the al pastor taco, tender, subtly seasoned shredded pork loin flavored with pineapple, is perhaps the best accompaniment.
The kitchen would do well to let such fine ingredients shine, but it has a habit of drenching them in sauces. Take the caramelos tacos ($5): delicious barbecued beef and melted Oaxacan cheese arrive in the beloved tortillas, only to be smothered by guacamole and thin sour cream. Fish tacos ($5) and various versions of chimichanga ($15) suffer a similar fate. Corn on the cob ($5) is nicely grilled and still crunchy, but rolled in too much queso fresco. Churros ($4), the traditional extruded fried-dough dessert, is dusted with sugar, then inexplicably doused with caramel-chocolate sauce, rendering it hyper-sweet.
Such zeal is part of the charm of the restaurant; the waitstaff is more than eager, the management more than attentive. But even they can overdo it. Everyone is wearing “El Centro’’ logo-emblazoned uniforms that are more Panda Express than neighborhood eatery. Red shirts for staff, black for managers. Unfortunate for both.
At some point, and perhaps with some encouragement from customers, El Centro will find that it’s already doing what it does best: simple, authentic dishes made with good, fresh ingredients. Sauce, if you must, lightly applied or on the side.
Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.