Hoorah for Ajuúa!
Ajuúa! Pronounced ah-hoo-a! it is a happy expression, a kind of triumphant hoot - like yeehaw! Or, hoorah for fried plantain! It's also a spacious Mexican restaurant that recently opened in the strip mall at Huebner and Vance Jackson, featuring dishes popular in Chef Max Cardera's native Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and flavors of other Latin countries, including Argentina and Cuba. (You may recognize Cardera from the late Maximiliano's on North St. Mary's.)
From the name, one might expect a sports bar atmosphere or a kind of color-enforced cheeriness, but Ajuúa! is a deceptively calm environs. Essentially, it's a huge room, made slightly industrial by a ceiling of exposed ducts painted black, and slightly more intimate by walls of red, white, and blue used to create space within the space - while managing not to look too flag-like. For example, walking in, we looked through a creamy white wall of arched windows into a room of warm red.
The dining companion and I were seated in an odd little cubby, just large enough for two tables. Next to us, a couple of ladies lunching opted to skip savory and head straight for sweet; when the waiter returned a few minutes later with coffee and huge servings of Tres Leches, we were tempted to follow suit. Happily we did not, but don't worry, I'll come back to the beloved three milks.
For starters, we pondered the empanadas with shredded chicken and rajas, briefly considered the quesos (there are three varieties), and were warned off the gazpacho, whereby we settled on the ceviche: delicate chunks of white fish, avocado, tomato, and red onion, marinated in a superbly zesty juice of lime, cilantro and garlic. The DC declared it clean and snappy; like sushi, good ceviche can be a kind of brain food. We piled it on saltines - tasty but a wee bit crumbly - and tortilla chips and, when those were gone, we ate it straight out of the cup with a spoon. In our gluttony, the only critique we could offer is that it might be nice served with a little bread to mop up the sauce. Ajuúa Ceviche!
Ajuúa corn fungus!
We also liked the churrasco, a grilled skirt steak with fried plantains in chimichurri sauce. I like my skirt steak medium rare, but it is so often brought to the table over-cooked that I generally order it rare. So, it was only my own fault when my steak arrived exactly as requested, a little bloody. Melty and tender, it was salted and peppered to perfection with only a minimal amount of adornment from the sparsely applied chimichurri sauce - a parsley-dominant herb, olive oil, lemon and garlic concoction.
The star of the plate, however, was the plantain, which was fried crispy on the outside and deliciously warm and soft on the inside. Who knew ripe banana and roasted garlic could be so outrageously delicious?
Cilantro rice with bits of corn and red pepper was served with both dishes. While it did not taste like cilantro and was a little soft for her taste, the DC thought it was a refreshing change from the standard Mexican rice. The refried beans were dry and bland, with only a vaguely vinegar flavor. However, the whole black beans, though similarly plain, had cinnamon overtones that complemented the creaminess of the crepas nicely.
And now we return to the pudding-like Tres Leches, which arrived at our table drizzled in a chocolate, raspberry, cinnamon sauce and condensed milk. The DC said it was the best she'd ever had - quite a statement considering Tres Leches is such a dessert-menu standard in San Antonio.
For myself, I can only say this: I don't eat dairy because it makes me wretchedly ill. But with the DC gushing and nothing but the weekend before me, I decided to try one bite for palate development and the overall good of the review. I ate the whole thing and was scratching like a flea-ridden dog the next day. Do I regret sacrificing my health for a piece of cake? No, the tres itchies was worth every hive. •
By Susan Pagani