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  1. Expansion is always a scary word for acolytes of a particular restaurant. Although it often results in financial stability, a new creative avenue, and the room to retain or promote staff -- as a selfish group, us diners demand our favorite chef to be chained to his or her one restaurant, serving us with the dedication of a lifelong host. For Hugo Ortega, who is the American dream personified (Mexican immigrant dishwasher to James Beard award winner), expansion is just another way to demonstrate why he’s one of the best chefs in Texas. Xochi is the newest of the four restaurants he runs in Houston, opened this year, and a no better argument for adding even more to his mini-empire. Occupying one corner of the brand-new and gorgeous Marriott Marquis downtown, Xochi is sleek and lively, keeping up the modern aesthetic that Mexican restaurants have finally been allowed to embrace nationwide. The food follows suit; progressive and rooted in history (mostly Oaxacan) at the same time, for an all-together exciting meal that deviates just enough from Ortega’s other restaurants. Infladita de conejo ($14) -- Ortega’s version of the Olvera-popularized street snack. A puffed black tortilla cradled a sizable portion of braised rabbit, the bitterness of the fried tortilla balancing out the sweet, tomato-braised conejo. Red and green sauces with raisins and almonds rounded out the dish. Something old, something new, but a complete success. Puerco en mole de chicatana ($15) -- The pork ribs are fine on their own; obviously distant in comparison to the smoked meats found at true barbecue pits. But the real magic is when you pull apart the meat and slather on the “ant” mole served underneath. Ortega has long welcomed the presence of insects in his cuisine, and ants are what I assume account for the acidic and sweet notes in the otherwise hearty mole. Add the mole-doused rib meat to the accompanying corn tortillas (which probably have an interesting heritage, as they were a pale gold color and flecked with blue), and you have one hell of a taco. Helado de maiz ($9) -- Two types of ice cream here: one sweet corn, the other queso fresco. The former is playfully represented as baby ears of corn. Crumbled corn cookie and a dab of cinnamon-y, atole-influenced corn cream acted as garnish. Very fun and just right for those who pass on cloying or heavy final courses. I expect Xochi to be better a year from now, as any weak points get discarded and the best dishes are fine-tuned into perfection. Right now it’s excellent, and I would urge anyone traveling to the city to make time for a meal there. Houston is lucky to have Hugo Ortega, and his followers are lucky to have so many different ways to enjoy his cooking.
  2. Cosme is probably one of the hottest openings of late 2014, and one of the 2 or 3 best openings of last year in NYC. This week, the Times' review hit, and it's a 3-star rave up. The New Yorker review also hit this week. Adam Platt in New York/Grub Street grudgingly gives it 3 stars. Time Out New York - utter rave. And this nebbishy Jewish kid from Long Island liked it too...Tasty Travails.
  3. Given all the recent hype about big name restaurateur/chefs coming to the DC area and the prominent location, I am going to assume that the opening of MXDC by Todd English has been quiet on purpose. Aside from some very recent blogosphere and local media mentions over the past week around the June 19th opening, there really hasn't been much chatter. You'd think this restaurant sprang out of the recent 14th street sink hole- it seems to have popped up overnight. There is also no website for the restaurant, no online menu to be found, and no owned social media presence. MXDC is located in the space formerly occupied by Galileo III and Butterfield 9. English's team made only minor cosmetic changes to the interior of the space. There is now a bar on the second floor and the kitchen is closed off. The security cameras are still up. For a place that just opened the service was efficient, friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. The two of us had dinner there on Saturday night kind of on a whim. I walked by on Friday and saw that it was open (I work around the corner and didn't even realize anything was going on in the space), googled and read the recent minimal commentary, and then found an 8:30 reservation on Opentable. The restaurant was never more than 2/3 full the entire time we were there which was about 90 minutes. Since it isn't online some details about the menu. The menu is broken up into a series of sections of small plates designed to be shared: soups, ceviches, guacamoles, quesadillas (also described as flatbreads), tacos, bocadillos (per the waiter the other stuff that didn't fit into the aforementioned categories) and family style entrees all served with rice and beans. The menu is both seafood and vegetarian heavy. There are also sides and desserts along with a tequila list, beers, wine by the glass and cocktails. Small plates ranged in price from $8 to $18. Entrees were $25 to $35. Cocktails the now standard $10 +/-. Here's what we ordered and some brief tasting notes: Chips and three kinds of salsa (chipotle tomato, tomatillo jalapeno, habanero ginger): Served to every table. The chips taste industrial. The salsas are thin and aside from the third pack relatively little heat. They're fine, nothing to write home about. You can tell he's thinking "I could bottle these". Crab Guacamole $14: Crab meat, onions, a little jalapeno over oddly thin/smooth guacamole like it was made ahead in a robot coupe. Why don't they make it in a molcajete tableside? As this seems to be industry standard at this point. Tropical Ceviche $14: Good sized portion of tuna and crab with watermelon, coconut milk, jalapeno and onions. This was better when you got some watermelon in a bite otherwise it was just ok. Jicama Ensalada $9: Jicama and smoked watermelon over arugula. This could have been a lot better than it was. The smokey watermelon was really the standout. Pork Belly Tacos $13: Three small pork belly tacos topped with some pickled onions and a cilantro sprig. A respectable dish but nothing to write home about. Cochinita Pibil Arepas $14: Hands down this was the standout dish of the night and what you think really great Mexican food should taste like. The spice was well balanced the pork a texture perfect. The little arepa "sliders" were crispy delicious. Only problem is that you get two per order. These are awesome. Chocolate Semifreddo $10: Our waiter talked us into this one. We had been thinking of getting the rosemary tres leches cake. But he said he just didn't like it at all. Semifreddo is a misnomer based on what we got (it wasn't anywhere close to frozen). A good sized bar of chocolate mousse scented with orange over a crispy dark chocolate base. Tasty with a nice light texture. Plating was sloppy. Churros and Cajeta $8: My understanding is that cajeta is goat milk dulce de leche. Having spent time in Argentina, I now make my own dulce de leche. I wish this cajeta had that kind of thick, creamy texture instead it was warm and liquidy. The churros come hot, S-shaped, and with a very light dusting of cinnamon and sugar. Summer Smash Cocktail $10: Tequila, pineapple syrup, lemon, dolin blanc. Basically a Mexican style sangria with big pieces of fruit. Sweet, but not cloying and refreshing. Mexican Mule $12: Tequila, home brewed ginger beer, lime. Listed as a "house bottled" cocktail this had no ginger taste to speak of nor did it come in a bottle. If they skipped the home bottled BS and just use a good bottled product like Fentimans, this could be a really solid cocktail. Cocoa Picante $10: Cocoa tequila, lime, agave, jalapeno water and Cointreau. This drink is mind-blowingly good. There is a camp who believes it isn't entirely fair to judge a place by the food produced during the first week it is open. But given the provenance of MXDC it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to expect them to be able to hit the ground running. Certainly the quality of service suggested a pro was running the place. Good Mexican food is deeply flavorful, complex, and soulful. Unfortunately, the flavors of the food at MXDC are muted and insipid.The food at MXDC is attractive but lacks any sort of depth, soul or personality. Not unlike the impression Todd English leaves when you see him interviewed. It feels like he is testing out a new high end casual dining concept to take nationwide like his pub at City Center in Vegas (which is actually pretty good). The menu screams replicable corporate concept. I expect people will compare this restaurant to Oyamel or some of the other higher minded Mexican casual dining concepts popping up along 14th street or in Arlington. This restaurant won't compete with the likes of Oyamel. It doesn't even close to being as good nor does it have the same convivial atmosphere. Nor is this anything like what you'd get at a Rick Bayless outpost in Chicago or O'hare. I won't describe the meal as a waste of either money or calories but I see no reason to go back except to sit at the bar and get a cocoa picante cocktail and the arepas.
  4. Having returned to Texas after a 20-year absence, I've been trying to immerse myself in as much Houston-ness (and Texas-ness as a whole) as I possibly can. Gotta get back into the swing of things. So far, this has meant an embarrassing number of tacos (of the breakfast and non varieties), barbecue galore, all manor of delicious Vietnamese things, Whataburger lunches, and of course, vats of queso. I don't think I've had a non-Texas beer since returning, and I don't feel a longing for anything else at this point. (OK, that's a bit of a lie, as I would kill for a Bell's Two-Hearted right now.) So in that spirit, Hugo's seemed to be a natural choice of venue to celebrate my ##th birthday last week. Dinner started with margaritas (there are a number of interesting variations to choose from in addition to the very well-made standard), chapulines (fried grasshoppers served with salsa, guacamole, and blue corn tortillas), and tamales de pescado. Our waiter only showed the slightest raise of the eyebrow with the chapulines order, but I wanted to compare what I would be served at a restaurant with tablecloths and an award-winning wine program with what I bought in a paper bag in the market in Oaxaca years ago. The crispy critters are served with a standard guacamole, and smoky, mildly spiced chipotle salsa, meant to be wrapped in deliciously thick blue corn tortillas. The bugs themselves are nicely crispy, with no untoward chewiness, and nicely salted. The winner of this round (and the whole night, really), though, were the fish tamales. Served three to an order, wrapped in banana leaves, these were impossibly light, moist, and filled with nicely cooked bits of white fish (I should've asked what type, but it's mildly flavored and on the lighter side). A pleasantly bright and fresh salsa Veracruzana comes alongside and completes the dish. These are a must-order item. I moved on to the cabrito, tender roasted goat served with sautéed cactus, guacamole, rustic corn tortillas, and a fiery habanero salsa. I love the gaminess of goat, but even timid souls would get along with this preparation. My only caveat is that the salsa is no joke, and clashed mightily with the glass of Rioja I paired with the dish. My wife's callo de hacha (scallops) were perfectly seared, and placed atop a half-inch thick slab of sweet cornbread. The menu mentions rajas con crema, though here the poblanos are blended with the cream, creating a pale green sauce topping the bread. Very nice dish, though it seemed tame after a few bites of my habanero salsa. Service was solid throughout, and if you want, the valet service will even wash your car while you eat (which I had no idea was a thing). Chef Ortega has been a Houston fixture, and on the shortlist for a James Beard several times, and not without reason. We'll be back, especially to check out the Sunday brunch buffet, and of course, for more of those tamales de pescado.
  5. Last Thursday my wife and I had dinner at Richard Sandoval's restaurant in Treasure Island in Las Vegas, Isla. This is similar to Zengo his restaurant which is scheduled to open this month in D. C. http://modernmexican.com/rs.htm Isla won the "best of Vegas" award for 2004 from Las Vegas magazine. His Denver outpost won a similar award from Denver magazine and his San Francisco restaurant is highly regarded. Maya, according to that harbinger of excellence and taste Zagat, in New York, is given 24 points for food ranking ahead of Rosa Mexicano and only two points behind the city's highest. Isla made me long for Rosa Mexicano. I am not a fan of Rosa Mexicano. Isla is known for tableside guacamole and 90+ tequilas. Costco has a remarkably good guacamole which is sold in translucent packets, four to the package. Each of these is superior to the green glop that we were served in Vegas. The chips that accompanied these were unusual in that they were considerably thicker, more irregular fried corn curiosities that neither of us cared for. Salsa that accompanied them was imaginatively presented on a two tiered bowl with the top tier housing three different salsas, the best of which was a watery chipotle. I am obsessed with tortilla soup. I have eaten this all over the United States from El Paso's Camino Real cafe (the best) to (insert name of city). From supermarkets to dumps which have never had another gringo stumble up to their counter to upscale white tablecloth Southwestern temples of hoity toity excellence I have pursued Great tortilla soup. The search did not stop in Las Vegas. Certainly not at Isla at Treasure Island. Shrimp ceviche was decent, several steps below the excellent ceviche at Coastal Flats or Guajillo. Queso fundido was good-but not as good as what we had at the nondescript Mexican at the Venetian the next night. A red snapper special disappointed while a boneless pork chop sauced with driblets of cream corn interspersed with mole was actually delicious-almost a Great dish! Side dishes of rice and pedestrian beans made me long for Rio Grande/Uncle Julio's though. A signature dessert which incorporated very good commercial Cinnamon ice cream and excellent bottled caramel was an appropriate finish to this $150 dinner for two. Three watered down "uptown" margeritas with Grand Marnier and top shelf tequila factored into this. What can I say? Las Vegas should have great Southwestern food-it's not that far from Phoenix or L. A. Albuequerque's Garduno's has an outpost there (benchmark guacamole and chili colorado that clears any nostril) as does Bobby Flay who some have called New York's best although I'm not certain what this means. Anyway, Isla/Zengo is coming here. My experience in Vegas was not one to make me stand in line on 7th street until it opens. Hopefully, because our standards are above those of Las Vegas (!) we will be gifted with a restaurant that lives up to the excellence Denver and Las Vegas magazines and Zagat honored their outposts for. Of course I am assuming that Denver, Las Vegas and New York know what exemplery Southwestern and Tex Mex should taste like. Perhaps remarkably, over the years, I have found that great Tex Mex is extremely difficult to find in these cities. San Francisco does have this. But I doubt that any of the taco trucks there which are truly excellent are listed in Zagat or any restaurant guide. And the several mom and pop restaurants in their version of our Riverdale are rarely written about in any review just as the best of Amarillo, Lubbock and El Paso are rarely reported in English in any publication. I have lowered my expectations for Zengo. I hope I am wrong to have done this.
  6. Any reports on the first (er, second) pop-up coming of Bandolero at Cleveland Park's former (and maybe future...or maybe not) Tackle Box location? Surely some must have tried the preview $65 tasting menu by now? Went by the planned Georgetown location this week. Doesn't seem too close to opening there but tough to be sure.
  7. Absolutely, amazingly good. I cannot rave more about this place. Superb, small tostadas equal to any I have had anywhere. Maybe better than anywhere. This is from of Aaron Sanchez (TV Food Network and El Paso via Kansas City) and John Besh (Restaurant August) in New Orleans. We had eleven or twelve different tastes/plates from the menu and every single one was much better than I had even hoped for. All of the tostadas, four or five of the tacos. I never thought that grilled scallions would be a Great dish but these were. The El Paso connection is an interesting one for me personally since I once felt that I would fly there specifically to eat Tex Mex. L & J (a biker bar across from a graveyard) and Kiki's for anyone who has ever been there. Baltimore is closer. Not a full blown restaurant but a taqueria which features the tostadas after 5:00PM. I must also note that @7:30 every single one of the 200 or so seats and bar seats was full with people lined up to get in. All the more remarkable that it is in a casino.
  8. I was shocked to read this from Sietsema in today's Post, complaining of oversalted food at Agua 301. When I was there last week practically everything was underseasoned and undersalted, to the point of outright blandness. The one exception was perhaps the barbacoa flautas, which were a delicious and crispy appetizer. But everything else, including the guac and the salsa, needed salt and more assertive seasoning. It was a shame, because otherwise the dishes were well made and nicely presented (if rather skimpy for their price). I wasn't drinking that evening, but I heard from those who were in our rather large group that the drinks were well made and strong. The service was excellent. I wonder if the restaurant heard about Sietsema's criticism before it appeared, and overcompensated.
  9. While attending a Fringe Festival production in the neighborhood we decided to give Xochitl a try for dinner. We were seated right on time and the wait staff was very responsive. They do an interesting take on the table-side guacamole where you get to customize your ingredients. We stuck with pretty basic ingredients, except for shaved black truffle which really didn't add all that much additional richness. We share the ceviche and thought it was very light and citrusy. I had the Shrimp Nogada which was incredibly rich, cheesy and stuffed in a poblano pepper. My daughter had the Pollo Frito which was fine...but not terribly memorable. We ordered dessert but all I can remember is that the mexican chocolate mousse just had too much cayenne heat to be a fully enjoyable dessert. The margaritas were well mixed and the service quite attentive. They were nice enough to come find us when my daughter had left behind her sweater. Overall the right restaurant in the right location for us. A bit pricy but relatively solid interior Mexican food.
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