FILLING AND DELICIOUS Feast at El Rayo Cantina.
There are two traditional ways for folks from the US to encounter Mexico: get down and dirty, or really polish it up. We stumble through Tijuana, or head to an insulated resort in Cancun or Cabo. So it has been with Mexican cuisine — which is best appreciated in greasy taquerias, but occasionally transformed in compelling haute cuisine. Efforts to strike a middle ground have mixed success at best. El Rayo Taqueria, for example, has been offering pretty good burritos and tacos (and more) for the last three years — but you never quite get past the impression that it's a prissy sort of taqueria, and that everything would taste better if it were a buck or two cheaper.
In opening the El Rayo Cantina right next door, the proprietors have embraced their inner priss, and to good effect. The slanted, angular space is filled with nice details, but not overdesigned. The service is warm and attentive, but informal. And the menu, on first perusal, undersells the ambition of the cuisine — dishes that sound sort of interesting in print turn out to be genuinely pleasant surprises when they arrive at your table. In the new context the prices seem very reasonable.
The long and handsome bar invites drinking, and the house margarita is a good one. Much more interesting, however, is the "slow burn" cocktail — a sort of tequila-sour with a wallop of chili-heat. It's a great drink. The house sangria takes a light approach, and lets you taste the refreshing pinot grigio behind the sweet juices of apple, pineapple, and grape.
The menu offers a mix of smallish snacks, good for a tapas-like approach to dining, intriguing salads, and more substantial entrées. The crab-coconut salad — with the crabmeat stacked over a layer of diced avocado — was fresh and light. It was seasoned with restraint so you could appreciate the natural sweetness of the ingredients. Delicate crisps made from masa corn added some welcome crunch and saltiness. A portobello taco managed to extract the earthiness from this mild mushroom. It was topped with an unusual and very pleasant version of rajas, made (it seemed) from yellow pepper. Fresh corn added some sweetness and crunch. The tamale is a bit unusual — the corn meal shell is relatively thin and light, while the plantain inside overwhelms some bites with sweet — somewhat obscuring the chorizo and goat cheese.
Other dishes feature the comforting mushy richness of meat and cheese. One such is the fundido, a rich, creamy dip with more cheese than beef, but plenty of both. Another is the pozole — which comes and goes from the menu, and appears in different versions. The one I tried was more stew than soup, and featured a huge pile of tender pulled pork, spotted with big, slightly chewy pieces of hominy, all soaked (but not swimming) in a rich and spicy broth. It was filling, and delicious. We were just as happy with the bistec con café. The big hunk of beef shoulder, pitch-dark with a dusting of coffee rub and a good char, was tender and rich underneath. The cream sauce could have used a touch more peppery heat, but the creamy polenta was spot-on. Strips of crisp tortilla and kernels of corn added some texture and a hint of sweet.