For most of America, a night out at your local Mexican food place starts with chips, salsa, a margarita and ends with cinnamon crisps for dessert. In between you’ll probably get either a Number 6 Combo or the Chicken Fajitas. You’ll also want to make sure you have your Zantac handy to counter the heavy doses of grease, cumin, oregano, bell peppers, onions and of course, yellow cheese that will be flowing off your [caution] hot plate!
Gourmet will be about as far from your mind on the drive home as east is from the west. Unless you had the pleasure of enjoying a night at El Naranjo, Chef Iliana de la Vega’s cathedral of Mexican cuisine in Austin, Texas.
A meal at El Naranjo is more than dinner… it’s an adventure you take led by Chef Iliana, fearless in what she is putting before you. From the moment you walk in, you realize there is something different about this place. No sombreros, no cheesy chiles painted on the walls and not a serape in sight. Just simple, understated elegance.
We started our adventure on the Mexican coast with the ceviche of the week. This had a tropical feel to it. In addition to large chunks of yellowfin tuna, it was loaded with pineapple and plantain. What a unique twist on a classic Mexican appetizer.
After the ceviche, we headed for the isthmus of Oaxaca, sampling the Garnachos Istmeñas. These are small corn tortillas, about 2 inches in diameter, topped with beef, queso fresco, Oaxacan slaw and a delightfully smoky papilla chile salsa.
As we were enjoying these, a small basket of bread arrived. Yes, you read that right. Bread.
One thing many people don’t know is that in Mexico, while the tortilla is king, bread is like a prince, next in line, and just as royal. Served alongside these warm two-bite size ciabattas was an offering of escabeche, butter whipped with orange peel and chile de arbol, and a salsa macha, a collection of 7 chiles, mixed to the consistency of jam. Do yourself a favor, get a jar of this to take home.
We finished up our appetizers and it was now time for the main course.
On our table we had mole negro from Oaxaca, poached halibut in an achiote sauce made with coconut milk and Tikin Xic from the Yucatan, a wonderful sea bass offering made with achiote paste and served alongside a delicate spinach tamal.
This is where our adventure went off the charts.
First off, Iliana’s mole, in addition to all the other “normal” ingredients, uses the chilhuacle chile alongside a hint of chocolate. This adds such a subtle spice, it’s like a ghost. It is rich, thick, delicious and not for the feint of heart. It might also be the best mole you’ll experience this side of what Juliette Binoche whipped up in “Chocolat.”
The halibut in achiote and green plantains, the nightly special, was spectacular, both in taste and in appearance. Simply put, it was visually stunning.
By far the star of the night for me was the Tikin Xic. First off, I’ve never even seen this delicacy from the Yucatan on a menu outside of the top restaurants in Mexico. The fish was pan seared to perfection and the tamal was nothing like the heavy offerings offered in many restaurants. It was light, and a wonderful compliment to the Tikin Xic.
We finished our meal with a guava flan. Made with an egg base, flan is incredibly hard to get right. If it is overcooked, you’ll know it even before the first bite by the small bubbles evident around the edge. This flan had not a bubble in sight and the guava sauce, as opposed to a caramel sauce, was one more bit of evidence of Chef Iliana’s drive to push the envelope of “traditional” Mexican food in new ways.
By now you’ve probably figured out that El Naranjo is not your typical Mexican Restaurant. There’s not a combo platter on the menu, yellow cheese does not exist, and it is spendy. Chef Iliana tells me that if someone arrives without a reservation, she shows them the menu first as most folks have never experienced gourmet food from Mexico. And that is exactly what you will get here. Gourmet food from the heart of My Mexico.
But understand this… if you stay, you will be rewarded with one of the best meals you’ve ever had a restaurant. Period!
Two final thoughts.
I mentioned at the top the margarita, potentially the greatest cocktail ever invented and a staple at Mexican restaurants worldwide. You can get one here, made with just about any tequila you want. But since you are already on a food adventure, why not continue and maybe for the first time, try a little mezcal, the “other” great spirit from Mexico. Have it in a margarita, or better yet, try one of the mezcal cocktails specifically developed by Iliana and her staff. The Mezcaliña, using serrano peppers has a little kick and the La Llorana, with hibiscus is on the fruity side. Both are made with the excellent Mezcal Union, from San Baltazar Guelavila, just east of Oaxaca City.
Finally, I’ve had the honor of eating at some of the top Mexican Restaurants, both here, and south of the border. Without a doubt, this was one of the best experiences I have ever had. Chef Iliana has done a wonderful job at El Naranjo of showcasing the traditional flavors of Mexico in ways people in the US have never experienced.
Should you go? Without a doubt! This is a 4 stars, two thumbs up, don’t miss out experience.
El Naranjo, 85 Rainey Street, Austin, Texas
Dinner for two, no drinks… about $100.00, including tip. Reservations recommended.