One of the benefits of the growing Latino presence in Madison is the proliferation of good and varied - and especially Mexican - restaurants. In the past year we enjoyed Taquería Guadalajara, the tiny diner on South Park Street, and then along came El Pescador, the wonderful Mexican seafood place on East Washington.
Now we have La Mestiza on Odana Road. The co-owners, Armando Cristobal and Antonio Estrada, have moved into the space formerly occupied by the Sacramento Bakery in Market Square.
Every new Mexican eatery displays its own culinary style, usually dictated by the chef's region of origin and family traditions. And it's obvious that the proprietors of La Mestiza have roots in Mexico City and Oaxaca. The dishes are colorful and spirited, prepared with skill and imagination. The style is entirely different from that of El Pescador or La Hacienda or El Pastor. It's another indication of the wide culinary differences among the various regions of Mexico - and all to our benefit.
You'll find the usual tacos, enchiladas and tamales at La Mestiza, but you'll want to aim higher by trying some of the house specialties. In a recent visit with three companions, we were immediately impressed with the homemade corn chips served with a smooth salsa verde and a spunky salsa roja. When a restaurant cares this much about its chips and salsa, that's a good indication of things to come.
By all means, order a guacamole appetizer to go with your chips. No ordinary creamy guacamole, this one has chunks of avocado, chiles and tomato, cilantro and fresh limejuice. A definite winner, especially when paired with one of the restaurant's excellent margaritas, made with Hornitos tequila and Gran Torres orange liqueur.
Less successful were the sopes de chorizo con papas, corn masa cakes filled with chorizo, potatoes, sour cream and cheese. These were a little dry and lacking in flavor.
On an earlier visit I loved the camarones enchilados, a generous serving of large shrimp swimming in a fiery chile de arbol salsa. There are no sides served with this dish, so you may wish to order a side of verduas en vinagre, a melange of pickled cauliflower, carrots, garlic and jalapeños. I once had this dish in Mexico City and it cauterized my tongue for three days afterward, but this one is quite mild.
On this most recent occasion I had carne asada, an altogether agreeable beef tenderloin, tough but well flavored, served with chunky guacamole, grilled scallions, beans and grilled cactus. Another winner was the cochinita pibil, achiote-marinated pork slowly cooked with citrus juices, wrapped in a banana leaf and served with pickled red onions. The aromatic and tender pork played nicely against the citrus and onion flavors. Achiote, incidentally, is made from the dark red seeds of the annatto tree; it seasons the dish and adds a deep red color.
But perhaps my favorite so far is La Mestiza's borrego en chile pasilla, a perfectly wonderful lamb shoulder simmered lovingly in a dark, pungent chile pasilla salsa. Here again, the fork-tender meat is happily married to the spirited chile salsa.
Other house specialties include pollo en mole, pollo en mancha manteles (chicken in a red chile sauce with fresh pineapple), and a fish of the day (often tilapia) wrapped in banana leaves and served with seasonal vegetables. For vegetarians there are two dinner entrees (a grilled vegetable plate and veggie enchiladas) and three lunch offerings (veggie enchiladas, quesadillas and tamales).
Desserts include an acceptable-but-not-award-winning flan, apple tart, crepes in a caramel sauce and, on our visit, a beautiful chocolate pecan pie.
Brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays, featuring chilaquilles con bistec - corn tortillas simmered in a tomatillo sauce and topped with sour cream, crumbled cheese and skirt steak - as well as menudo, tripe soup in a pasilla chile broth.
The service at La Mestiza still has a way to go - it's often rough but always cheerful - but I'm willing to make allowances when the food is this good.
La Mestiza, 6644 Odana Rd., 826-0178, 11 am-10 pm daily, brunch 11 am-4 pm Sat.-Sun. Parking. Wheelchair accessible. Lunch $6-$8, dinner $12-$15. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards.