Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Restaurant review: Holy mole!

South St. Pete’s El Gallo Grande delivers south-of-the-border flair.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 9, 2014 at 1:09 PM

click to enlarge El Gallo Grande's shredded pork carnitas. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • El Gallo Grande's shredded pork carnitas.

With immigration battles still sizzling like fajitas and the evening news filled with crossfire about our porous southern border, it’s easy to forget about the tremendous cultural debt we owe our Mexican neighbors. Try to park your dismay about John Wayne’s demise as Davy Crockett in The Alamo, and instead be reminded of the striking murals of Diego Rivera and his muse Frida Kahlo.

That’s the first thing I thought about as I approached El Gallo Grande from the rear parking lot. The entire side of the building is filled with the enormous horizontal image of a dark-eyed beatific face. It’s a striking old movie poster mural of Maria Felix in vivid yellow, black and red.

The colorful theme continues as you enter through the ornate doorway into a world that captures the spirit of Mexico. There are wonderful ceramic tiles, decorative cutout bricks and huge mural portraits, including one lucha libre wrestler that watched over our comfy leather booth.

There’s an inviting bar and a series of communal high tops under a colorful raised square tray ceiling with lighting that cycles through the entire rainbow. Each side is emblazoned with a potential state of being at the end of the evening, depending on your companions and how much you imbibe: happiness, lack of inhibitions, lust or sadness. At the center is a small crystal chandelier reflecting back all the color and energy that fill the room. The setting has all the Mexican magical realism of a novel like Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

click to enlarge The restaurant's colorfully lit interior. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • The restaurant's colorfully lit interior.

Fresh crisp chips and a mild, fine-textured salsa arrive quickly. Both are clearly made with care. The guacamole is wonderful. While it’s light on tomatoes, it’s creamy and bursting with lime. The kitchen, however, has found the magical balance of citrus, cilantro and lusciousness that makes it memorable. Three small taquitos are rolled around a potato and spicy chorizo filling that’s all Mexican comfort food. Sprinkled with queso fresco, they are quite tasty with or without the tomato-chipotle salsa.

While the red sangria is served on the rocks without any accompanying fruit, it’s a lip-smacking match for the touch of heat in most of the cuisine. There’s great fruitiness, the zip of alcohol, and just the perfect hint of sweetness to cleanse our palates between bites. El Gallo also offers a series of special margaritas highlighting kick-ass premium reposado tequila.

The menu is limited, but as Spencer Tracy once quipped about Katherine Hepburn, “There ain’t much meat on her but what’s there is ‘cherce’” (Old Brooklynese for choice). While the food is terrific, the service is absent. There seem to be enough servers to handle the crowd, but once our order is taken, our server vanishes. While we first order drinks and appetizers and then add our entrees as an afterthought, all our food arrives at once. A few minutes later, the drinks (including water) arrive and our server is never to return. Our meal is nearly over when a floating pitcher of water finally arrives to fill our empty glasses.

The pescado Tampeño is pleasantly mild; the panko-crusted grouper is cooked just right and served with the ubiquitous rice, pico de gallo, a blanket of arugula and what appears to be a pinto bean purée; it’s tasty, but without much body.

click to enlarge The Flan, with creamy goodness and a pool of caramel. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • The Flan, with creamy goodness and a pool of caramel.

The chicken enchiladas include three rolled tortillas filled with moist shredded meat, and heated till the edges are crisp. The whole plate is drizzled in a delightful circular maelstrom of mole sauce and topped with confetti of shredded cheese. The chocolate and the chile are in perfect balance; it, too, is on the mild side, but more than any mole I’ve had in recent years, it’s reminiscent of the sauce that knocked my socks off on my first visit to Mexico City. In the hands of a skilled chef, the mole is greater than the sum of its parts. El Gallo’s mole is indeed “grand.”

As much as I like the enchiladas, though, great pork always finds its way to my heart. The shredded pork carnitas had me in hog heaven. I chose the salsa verde to complement the succulent meat, wrapped it in a soft warm tortilla and, for one brief, shining moment, was a very happy gringo.

Our meal concludes with a flan from the Inca gods. The plate is decorated with scrolling red fruit tracery that surrounds the wedge of custard. Rosettes of whipped cream are layered with slices of sweet ripe pineapple along one edge. The flan itself is light but loaded with creamy goodness, and the pool of caramel is as good as it gets. 

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