Saturday, September 18, 2010

When You Walk Through the Door . . .

your senses are inundated by a riot of color. Welcome to Alebrijes Mexican Bistro in Lodi, CA.

“Alebrijes (Spanish pronunciation:[aleˈβɾixes]) are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures (such as the figure on the left of the restaurant's sign). The first alebrijes, along with use of the term, originated with Pedro Linares. After dreaming about the creatures while sick in the 1930s, he began to create what he saw in cardboard and paper maché. His work caught the attention of a gallery owner in Cuernavaca and, later, the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Linares was originally from San Antonio Arrazola, Oaxaca, and on family visits demonstrated his designs there. The Oaxaca valley area already had a history of carving animal and other types of figures from wood, and Linares’ designs were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal” (Wikopedia).

The interior of Alebrijes is as colorful as the Oaxacan figures it is named for. In the small dining room where we were seated, one wall was bright blue, another was bright green, yet another was bright yellow, and the last resembled the burnt sienna crayon that was Chuck’s favorite in the box of sixty-four. Topping off—literally—this riot of color was a red ceiling.

Hanging from the ceiling was a fanciful Oaxacan bird-like figure (below) and cut paper star lamps. The gooseneck wall sconces had flower-shaped lamps—again in a profusion of different colors. And the music playing over the sound system was “jazz meets Mexico.” We knew that we hadn’t entered your typical taco stand.

As quoted on the Lodi Wine Country web site Chef/owner Ruben Larrazolo said, “After cooking in Mexico City for about 15 years (starting as a teenager), I moved to Napa and worked there for four years in restaurants, like Bistro Don Giovanni. In Napa, I met my wife, Adi, and we moved here to Lodi to start our family…. We stepped out of the box and left basic Mexican cuisine a long time ago. Oh, we still offer burritos and tacos, but our burritos and tacos, and everything else on our menu, is more what you would call gourmet. It is like the alebrijes — a fusion of colors and traditions, a mythological creature…”

We were seated at a very small table for two on the most uncomfortable restaurant chairs I have encountered. But after a couple of the ultra thin and house-made tortilla chips with Alebrijes’ sneaky salsa, I didn’t care. (“Sneaky” because its heat builds to a mild burn that doesn’t scorch the taste buds so thoroughly that you can’t taste the food that follows.)

The menu includes Alebrijes Guacamole made fresh at your table and served with homemade chips and a Seasonal Guacamole. Since there were only the two of us, the salsa and chips would be enough. Gourmet burritos come as regular (beans, rice, and your choice of meat) or special (adds lettuce, cabbage, cheese, and sour cream) or super (add melted cheese and homemade red or green sauce). Meat choices ranged from carne asada, al Pastor, carnitas, chicken, chile verde, chile relleno, pollo asado, or shrimp. And, for vegetarians, there is a burrito with grilled onions, bell peppers, cremini mushrooms, whole beans, rice, and cheese. There was also a “do it yourself” combo plate section with enchiladas, tacos, and chile rellenos.

But, sensing that this was no ordinary Mexican restaurant, we wanted something more. Chuck decided to order the Camarones Momias de Guanajuato or shrimp wrapped in bacon with melted cheese and accompanied by a honey chipotle dipping sauce. This consisted of seven large shrimp that when grilled absorbed the slight smoky flavor from the bacon. The bacon was neither brittle crisp nor was it flabby, and I suspect that it could have been blanched to remove some of the salt and smoke. “Covered with cheese” are three words that often frighten both of us. This too often means “smothered with artificial cheese product that totally obscures the flavor of what I am eating.” The slightly stringy cheese on the shrimp was applied with a gentle hand and only boosted the tastiness of the shrimp. And the honey chipotle sauce was a perfect partner. Since chipotles are smoked jalapenos, the sauce’s gentle smoky flavor meshed with the smoky bacon.

His plate also contained a serving of well-prepared yellow rice (no clumping, no sticking, every grain separate) and a serving of chunky refried beans.

I was going to order the fish fillets Vera Cruz-style, but opted instead for the Molé Poblano. I am not that familiar with molé and its various forms. Molé didn’t often appear on the menus of suburban Philadelphia Mexican restaurants. I know enough to know that molé poblano is the most well-known and that molé can contain as many as twenty or more ingredients.

So, this is not a plate of chocolate candies accompanied by rice and whole beans. It is nuggets of moist grilled chicken pieces covered with the most flavorful molé. The first taste you recognize is that of bitter Mexican chocolate. Then you taste the chiles. Then an assortment of flavors—all uniden-tified—hit the mouth. The sauce was so good that, using the remains of our second basket of those amazing tortilla chips, I scraped every speck from the plate. With my meal came a serving of the same great rice (also good with the molé) and a dish of whole seasoned beans.

So how good is Chef Ruben Larrazolo? As we were leaving, we talked briefly with his wife and business partner, Adi. She was holding down the fort because her husband was taking a class in Oaxaca with Rick Bayless. Yes, the Rick Bayless who owns the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago. The Rick Bayless who won the first season of Top Chef Masters on the Bravo Network. Remember his name. Ruben Larrazolo.

It should come as no surprise that Alebrijes Mexican Bistro gets the ultimate 5.0 Addie score, even with the most uncomfortable restaurant chairs—ever.

The inscription on the Lodi Arch near the railroad station reads: "Designed by architect E.B. Brown and built in 1907 for the Lodi Tokay Carnival, the Arch served as an entrance into Lodi and a symbol of agricultural and commercial growth. Essentially unaltered since construction, the structure is one of few remaining Mission Revival ceremonial arches left within California."

This corner in the center of town was a fine place to take a seat on the bench and enjoy the foot traffic on the tree-lined sidewalk--and recall the fine meal at Alebrijes.

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