Getting Picky with Picante

Release Date: 2002-08-08

San Antonians are an especially stubborn lot when it comes to Mexican food; we have our firmly held opinions, our favorite places ... and, frequently, our black holes of utter ignorance. Just as an unconverted outsider might find it strange that otherwise rational people would seek out a dark and dingy dining room for the express purpose of eating leathery enchiladas filled with yellow cheese, topped with thin, chile gravy, and strewn with chopped, raw onion, so do we compadres in crime have trouble imagining a world in which Mexican cuisine is as subtle and sophisticated as any on the planet. This is a wake-up call, y'all: There is a wonderful world of food beyond that narrow strip that is Carlos Fuentes' MexAmerica. Picante Grill is one way to get from here to there.

Which is not to make of a single restaurant more than it really is. PG's menu is as border-based as most, but somehow even such standards as enchiladas verdes and enchiladas Mexicanas tend to transcend type. No major break-throughs, mind you — just modest distinctions in staple sauces and such workhorses as the Mexican rice with its authentic, Norteño chunks of potato and, yes, lots of comino. It should be noted that there are house-made corn tortillas (though you may have to ask for them) in addition to the knee-jerk flour. It should also be mentioned that they have the pale look and faint aroma of having been made from masa harina — not a condemnation, merely an observation.

But it is in the Old Mexico section of the menu that insights into el corazon de la cocina Mexicana are to be had. The cochinita pibil (named for the pib, or pit, in which it's traditionally cooked in the Yucatan) has the tangy taste, orange cast, and sultry demeanor of the real thing — even though the banana leaf in which the tender chunks of pork are traditionally cooked seems here to be after-the-fact plate dressing. Be sure to add the marinated red onion to any taquito you assemble from the cochinita — and be sure it's a corn, not flour, tortilla.

If there's a dish, other than mole, that's emblematic of interior Mexico, it's chile en nogada, so patriotic in its red, white, and green colors that it stands for the nation as a whole. Ideally it's a late-fall dish, when the walnuts that comprise the "nogada" sauce are fresh, and the pomegranates that add the red to the garnish are in season. PG is nothing if not inventive in this regard, substituting diced, red bell pepper for the pomegranate seeds. As for the walnuts, more please — whether young or more mature; the sauce, though pleasant, tasted mostly of sweetened crema and cinnamon. The pork picadillo stuffing (also sweet with its complement of raisins) sported slivered almonds as well, and the roasted and peeled poblano had just enough heat to balance the flavors. This is a dish that can be served at room temperature, by the way, so don't be alarmed should it appear less than piping hot.

We move back toward the border with the next two dishes, the cortadillo and the birria, neither of which is common on local menus. Cortadillo is sometimes compared to the familiar, flour-thickened carne guisada, but in Northern Mexico, where there are probably as many versions as there are tias, it can also be much like a quickly cooked stir-fry. PG's excellent beef tips rendition falls somewhere in between — it has stew-like leanings but a mucho mas macho flavor profile than the standard guisada — despite menu claims of a "lightly spiced tomato sauce:" Try it.

If cortadillo is locally rare (Los Barrios does a quite different version), birria may be an endangered species altogether. Traditionally made of chile-coated goat or lamb cooked in maguey leaves in a pit, it's a special occasion dish even in Mexico. Restaurateurs and street vendors have naturally come up with short cuts, and PG's is to marinate the lamb in an ancho chile mixture that can also contain garlic, black pepper, and comino (and maybe a little vinegar) before slowly roasting it. The result, which is served on another vestigal banana leaf with a bewilderingly large amount of chopped onion and once-fresh cilantro, is lamby, lusty, and luscious; there's just not enough of it. As if to fill the plate, extra sauce, slightly bitter — presumably for not having been cooked with the meat — is also served.

A cold Mexican beer is perfect with slow-cooked red chile dishes such as the birria, but in theory a margarita should also do the trick. It would have to be somebody else's house marg, however; despite freshly squeezed lime juice, triple sec, and "a few other things" in the mix prepared daily, PG's on-the-rocks was way too sweet for this ordinarily imperturbable imbiber. The almost-obligatory tres leches cake, on the other hand, didn't seem sweet or sexy enough, despite its three creams and a coarse, house-made cake. None of this seems to bother the large noontime crowds (Witte denizens and local politicos alike), who are probably skipping both drinks and dessert anyway. Given the pleasant environment, attentive service and owner Gonzalo Pozo's obvious dedication to raising the bar on local Mexican cuisine, it probably shouldn't bother you either. •

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