Empanada Lovers, Rejoice!

Beto's is back, with its signature dish

Release Date: 2003-08-21

Empanada aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief: Beto's is back. Torta fanciers, on the other hand, are pissed. On the streamlined menu that accompanied Beto's move to scaled-down quarters up Broadway a piece from the previous location, the south-of-the-border subs are absent, and their vocal partisans have made management amply aware of their displeasure. Lay off, guys: Tortas, we're told, will be back.

But nobody seems to be complaining about the missing platos. Roasted chicken, grilled whole fish, Beto's Mixed Grill are also AWOL, victims of the pared-down (but definitely not down-and-out) mindset that characterizes the new location. There is a new enthusiasm: Symbolic of tenant-landlord discord, an office building is said to soon be going up in Beto's old backyard. The current backyard, reclaimed from a parking lot and casually landscaped, is utterly anti-office in its laid-back demeanor. This is the place to chill, even in the heat. A mojito won't hurt at other times, despite, or perhaps because of, its reduced rum content.

The mojitos may be mickey mouse, but flavors are full-throttle almost everywhere else. The ultra-upholstered quesadillas gigantes layer taste upon taste, making a simple-sounding chicken tomatillo model a complete meal. The compulsive critic would tweak and twitch, of course, and this one could have tolerated more tomatillo sauce, but the small bowl of well-flavored beans with rice that accompanied the platter was an especially suitable sidekick. and the pico, guac, and sour cream that come along can be added to the 'dilla, too, for a super sandwich sensation.

You will also be happy to hear that Beto's signature empanadas are as flaky as ever, and the spinach, potato, and cheese version - heavy on spinach though it may be - reminds us of what we have been missing for six months or so. (Much of the old crew came back after the prolonged sabbatical, by the way.) Yes, I could use more olive and potato, but I would order them again even without. I'm not so sure about the beef and red chile, as the shredded beef stepped over the line with its liquid-smoke taste. However the flavor is achieved, I would tone it down.

Don't hold back on the grilled fish tacos. The tilapia is good, the cilantro-accented coleslaw crunchy, and the "famous" creamy poblano sauce right on target. In fact, the corn tortillas were the only hitch in the git-along: They deserved to be at least warm, a comment that applies to the remaining tacos sampled as well. We liked the pork al pastor with its unabashed achiote accents (but no discernible pineapple pico), and the roasted veggie version, still a little crunchy, almost stole the show - especially with shot or two of the toasty Cesar Chavez salsa to play against the mellow vegetables.

We missed the sopa paraguaya (a moist cornbread) that normally accompanies the black bean soup. It is remembered fondly - but not always remembered by the kitchen, apparently. The soup is a straightforward purée with chunks of fresh tomato and a drizzle of poblano sauce. No problem sucking this one right down - although you might want to add a little salt. The pozole can be inhaled without hesitation as well; it's more rustic-looking and robust-tasting than many, and this is a definite plus. A side order of yucca fries could be considered as a companion to either soup - partly because of their rarity on local menus. Yucca is an extremely dense, especially starchy tuber that requires a little subduing before it can be consumed. Boiling is the usual method, after which fries can be made or a kind of guisado can be prepared. It's even made into bread. I had this stuff three times a day in Colombia during my Peace Corps years - and I still like it. Mashed, re-formed, and breaded is not my favorite form, but try it for yourself - and be prepared to add lots of salsa. In addition to being obdurate, yucca is also bland.

Inevitably, you will want to return to empanadas - perhaps with a glass of honey hibiscus tea or an agua fresca of whatever fruit is available at the time. Yes, we're talking dessert empanadas here, and there's no more indulgent option than the banana with leche quemada and pecan. Ours could have used a kernel or two more of pecan, but the banana/caramelized milk combo is killer on its own. More elegant, perhaps, is the mango with raspberry sauce, and here the option of adding a scoop of Mexican vanilla ice cream seems almost obligatory. (There is a lot of raspberry sauce to go around, in other words.) Guava and cream cheese is the local classic, of course, and "amor dulce," a rendition with strawberry and rhubarb is also available - sounding way too gringo for comida latina, but nobody ever accused Beto of being rigid. It's the tortamafia that's rigid if I have correct intelligence here. Lay off, lay back, get loose; that's the way to enjoy Beto's. And if this isn't enough, there's always the Rebar next door. Beto's seems to have a way of hooking up with bars, though we promise not to make anything out of that factoid. •

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