This isn’t entirely true, of course; Cielito Lindo on Stone Oak at Huebner has a sábana on its menu and pushes the cochinita pibil first made safe by La Calesa on Hildebrand. But it’s true enough to be painful. Which is why a place like El Callejon, fresh out of San Diego with Chilango creds, should be welcomed with open arms —assuming they can make good on the promise of a Mexican cuisine not altogether like the one we already think we know. Oh, and that they can break the curse of another woe-betide situation: a location that has seen many restaurants come and go.
A restaurant called Matisse, with owners from Mexico City if I remember correctly, most recently held forth in this Blanco Road location just far enough away from 1604 to miss out on the feeding frenzy that has developed at that super-hot intersection. Matisse was a classy-looking operation with a few good dishes. El Callejon hasn’t made décor a top priority, but right from the get-go they have thrown down a gauntlet: “750 different tequilas” boasts the menu.
Of course this isn’t true. We counted somewhere north of 60 actually listed, and when asked, our waitress claimed a hundred-plus at the bar. Hubris aside, what’s important is what they can do with the tequilas they have. The “Traditional” margarita, with its blend of Cuervo Tradicional, triple sec, Cointreau and fresh lime juice, had a slightly sweet, lightly perfumed quality that wasn’t what I was looking for but nonetheless seemed genuine. More rewarding was the renegade Horni with Sauza Hornitos, triple sec, lime, and a splash of cranberry juice. Not only was it a compelling, light-rose color, but the cranberry gave the drink a refreshing tartness.
In addition to being high on Horni, it pays to be nosy about the salsa at El Callejon. All it took was an inquiry about the three salsas that had accompanied our chips (a good red, an even better green, and an intriguing toasty rendition with a hauntingly bitter back taste), and a complimentary salsa sampler appeared. A cilantro sauce and a red enchilada sauce stood out, though the mole was also exemplary — a good thing, since the sopes (“bowl-shaped tortillas,” offers the menu, unhelpfully) were distinguished mainly by their size. Sopes are not common currency on local Mexican menus, though they are simple to make: form a thick disc of fresh masa, cook on a griddle until the bottom is lightly toasty, turn over and while the other side is toasting, pinch the edges up to form a rim — the occasion of burning fingers, but such is the price of handmade food. The bowl-shaped masa boats were a little denser than the ones I’ve made before, and though they were piled with chunky chicken drizzled with crema and crumbled cheese, the flavor didn’t excite. Enter the salsas: Try them all.
El C’s guacamole is impeccably fresh and chunky, but salsas were also helpful here to make up for its simplicity; there was no noticeable lime, cilantro, chopped chile, or onion — not to mention tomato. Purists will be in heaven; others will want to augment. Though they could well stand on their own, the “traditional” quesadillas, envelopes of fried, fresh masa we had requested with chorizo and potato stuffing, were especially good with any of the several salsas laced atop the packets, which were already capped with cream and queso.
Even unadorned, they beat by a country kilometer the toasted flour tortilla with cheese slammed inside we frequently see hereabouts. I don’t remember seeing them on the evening menu, but the website lists several other corn-tortilla quesadillas stuffed with the likes of carne al pastor, rajas, and lomo de puerco adobado. At lunchtime (and on a combination plate at dinner), according to our waitress, there are also huaraches, a Mexico City masa specialty shaped like a sandal and filled with beans, guacamole, and more.
The crema de chipotle soup at El C is much like the same salsa, both toned down and pumped up to bowl proportions, and though I don’t want to know what makes it so thick and creamy, the taste is very good indeed. It paired nicely with a brace of banana-leaf-wrapped tamales Oaxaqueños stuffed with chicken in mole — not quite enough mole, unfortunately. But additional sauce came on the side, making for a package that was good but likely better for its uniqueness than its outright quality.
Uniqueness also distinguishes the sábana. Yes, you’re eating a sheet. At least that’s how this cut of very thin beefsteak translates. Pounded very thin, it can cover a plate and be very quickly seared on each side. You couldn’t read El Tiempo through El C’s thicker rendition, but the steak came to the table announced by garlic and topped with fried chiles de arbol and onion. This was not really a sauce, as the menu suggests, but rather an assembly of parts (salsa arriera, or muledriver sauce, is quite a different thing in my definitive tome on the subject of chiles), nor was it “VERY HOT” as claimed. We liked it regardless.
The pescado chilango (a slang term for denizens of the D.F.) didn’t challenge as much as its chile güero component implied (this fresh, yellow chile can be hot or mild), but the firm and flaky mahi-mahi was well-served by its tomatillo sauce with green olives and capers. (There are other fish choices as well.) Buttery-tasting Mexican rice studded with corn kernels and decent refrieds completed the plate. Just like much of what we tasted at El Callejon, there were tantalizing hints of a cuisine out of the ordinary — but only that.
So we went back to the tried-and-true for dessert: flan. And the flan was perfect: creamy-silky in texture, just sweet enough, and lightly kissed with caramel. Hope still springs eternal for truly exciting Mexican food with more wide-ranging regional accents, but in the meantime I’ll settle for the ordinary done extraordinarily well. (NB: A dinner for two at El C with margaritas, tax, and tip can run to $80 or more.)