Monday, August 22, 2011

El Centro, South End, Boston

You've heard me complain for ages about the lack of good, authentic, Mexican food in this town. I have ranted about the cheese covered abominations, the neon green guacamole, and the spice void offerings of our local "scene". Sure, there have been a few saving graces that I've noted, but nothing truly stand out. Today I am considering re-trying all of those "bright spots" as I have now, truly, had fantastic Mexican cuisine right here in Boston.

Tucked away on a corner of Shawmut Ave in the South End stands El Centro. It is unassuming, non chalant in it's presence, in fact you might miss it when walking past -I did. But don't let it's quiet exterior fool you-El Centro will welcome you with open arms, and dazzle your taste buds with every dish.

My journey began at El Centro with their "spiced Sangria" and their own guacamole. Our waiters explanation of the Sangria was right on-their red sangria, enhanced with spices and a few slices of Jalapeno had a bite to it when sipped, but the real heat would come from munching on the jalapenos. I loved this take on Sangria. The cinnamon-y beauty of the drink shown through, but was wonderfully offset by the additional spices. It was a creative way to give a unique twist on a classic libation.

The guacamole was similarly unique, and delicious. The standard avocados mashed to perfection with hints of citrus, but then just before serving a crumble of cheese sprinkled on top, and a drizzle of chili (Chorizo?) oil completed the offering. Both of these accompaniments were welcome additions. The cheese, salty and robust contrasted the creaminess of the avocado, and the chili oil started a fire that was immediately cooled. Every bite was different, and every bit woke up the taste buds.

We decided to split our meal, and then began with three tacos-the Al Pastor, the Fish, and the Barbacoa. It is more than worth noting, the team at El Centro makes their tortillas fresh, so a taco at El Centro is not your standard, run of the mill taco with its casing hinting at stale or processed.  These tortillas are fresh, and clean tasting.

Al Pastor, which usually refers to pork paired with spices and pineapple, is one of my go to options.  El Centro worth paired chopped pork, rich with spice and good heat with the sweet pineapple and a smooth guacamole. The pork was tender, and contained real spice which was a very welcome change to many other restaurants interpretation of spice.  The guacamole was cooling in the face of the heat, and together they made an addictive taco.  The sweet pineapple flavor was light, I personally would have enjoyed a bit more of that flavor for the complexity it would provide, however, over all this was a delicious taco.  

For my second helping I tried out their Fist Taco.  Under normal circumstances, I shy away from fish tacos.  I love the idea of them, but far too often, they contain heavily fried fish, which ruins the dish for me. We clarified ahead of time, and at El Centro, the fish is seasoned and baked, making for a much lighter, and in my opinion, flavorful dish.  It is served with a creamy cilantro sauce, and crisp shredded vegetables.  The fish did get a bit lost in its blanket of sauce, but the flavors were perfect.  The creamy sauce, with the mildly spicy fish, all complimented with the crunch of vegetables.  This was a fish taco I could have again and again.

My final bite was of the Barbacoa. Beer marinated beef, slow cooked and shredded.  The flavor here was delicate, but complex.  It was deep and rich, with perhaps just a hint of smoke?  I paired these bites with the house made hot sauce that was delivered to the table.  I can honestly say, for the first time in a restaurant, this hot sauce packed a serious punch, resulting in slight eye watering, and that weird, sick, desire to eat more of it.  Spice is a funny thing.

Finally, we moved into our next course, Camarones Al Chipotle  (shrimp in chipotle sauce).  This was highly recommended by our waiter and he did not lead us astray.  The shrimp were beyond "large", plump and perfectly cooked.  They were then set in a beautiful bath of a creamy chipotle sauce, and paired with rice, corn and cilantro. The chipotle sauce was perfection, to be honest, I could eaten it as a soup. Rich, spicy and decadent.  When paired with those delicate shrimp the sauce somehow complimented their sweet freshness, but did not overcome it.  The sweet corn was a perfect accompaniment, and the rice was a wonderful vehicle for sopping up the, um, extra sauce.

El Centro exceeded my expectations at every turn.  It's exterior may be quiet and unassuming, but inside is filled with warm, wonderful people, who are creating food full of rich, hearty flavors, true spice, and authentic pairings.  This is not your average "thrown beans in it and blanket it with melted cheese and call it a day" Mexican food.  This is food that truly celebrates the country, and El Centro plays the part of inviting each patron into their home to guide them through their kitchen.

Word to the wise, we arrived at 7:30 on a Friday evening, tables were available.  Within moments however every last table was full, and a small line was forming outside the door.  Reservations are not accepted- so get there early- this is food you want to make the time for.    


In and Around Town said...

Always on the lookout for great Mexican - I will definitely have to give this place a try! Great Review

Melissa said...

Thanks for posting this thoughtful review. El Centro has been on my radar since it opened but I haven't gotten there yet. I think your review just moved it to the top of my list!

Taryn said...

I'm so excited to read your rave review of El Centro! It made me HUNGRY! I've heard great things about it, and am moving in just a couple blocks away, so I'm absolutely going to have to make a stop in there very, very soon.

Elizabeth said...

I've heard great things about El Centro. I really want to try it!

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