This month, you’re getting two reviews for the price of one. Not my fault: It’s just that husband-and-wife Erin Ungerman and Hector Ruiz have been opening places faster than I can eat.
Their initial business venture was the takeover-makeover of the venerable but faltering El Meson, serving Spanish/Caribbean cuisine. Next, without even breaking a sweat, they turned the grungy Grand Dairy (46th & Grand Ave. S.) into Café Ena, offering Chef Ruiz’s Latin-fusion inspirations. Then, before the paint was barely dry, they took over the shuttered Pizza Nea at Lake & Dupont, bringing Uptown the complex Mexican fare of Ruiz’s heritage.
All three succeed in offering inviting ambience and friendly, adept service, but it’s the newest—Indio is its name—that wins my palate as well as my heart.
Amid the vibrant, forward colors uplifting the cozy interior, start your meal (well, if you’re wise, anyway) with the kitchen’s superb guacamole, made to order. No trick to it: It’s simply perfectly ripened avocadoes mashed ever so gently to retain a few enticing lumps, livened with a spritz of lemon juice and sided with a basket of house-made tortilla chops. Life starts looking good.
A trio of sopes—plump and curvy little tortilla boats, wonderfully corny-tasting—sail your way filled with a piquant roasted tomatillo sauce, a drizzle of crema and dusting of queso fresco atop your choice of filling. Ours, the wild mushrooms, were way too good for ordinary earthlings.
A tamal cooked in the style of Oaxaca, where Mexico’s Indian heritage prevails, corralled a heap of chicken tinga in a plump, corn-flavored blanket; it’s laced with a complex, deeply-flavored brown mole sauce, made (they say) from Hector’s mother’s recipe (appetizers and salads generally under $11).
A sip from a well-crafted grapefruit margarita and we’re on to the entrees (15 choices, $15-25). Undisputed winner was the Nayarita plate—a sophisticated composition of just-seared, sweet and juicy scallops crowning mashed potatoes infused with huitlacoche, an earthy, truffle-like Mexican example of ingenuity; it’s actually a fungus that grows on ears of corn (too much information?). But leave it to Hector to gild the lily—the plate also held perfectly-grilled asparagus, a mist of agave-ancho chili sauce for dcpth, and pineapple salsa to intensify the scallops’ own sweetness.
Duck-filled flautas (like little cigars) brought smiles, too. They’re plated with black beans, still retaining a refreshing hint of crunch, and parsley rice in a mild guajillo pepper sauce and a soupspoon of pert pico de gallo.
But the Pescado Maya—an achiote-marinated fillet of mild corvina fish—fell short, despite efforts of a juicy jicama-cucumber salad and monita chile sauce (plus more pineapple salsa). Sadly, it comes off as simply bland and not worth your time or dollar.
For dessert (all $6) we dived into a cluster of churros, those dangerously addictive little deepfried cruller sticks, dusted in cinnamon and sugar and just begging to be dipped into the chocolate fondue at their side.
To gild that lily yet again, Hector serves them with house-made espresso ice cream. Or choose between—it’s hard, but that’s part of being a grownup—the caramel-coconut flan; a chocolate-morita pepper lava cake aside sorbet flavored with horchata (a milky drink made of roasted corn and far better than it sounds), or the—oh, lady, get a grip!
Erin has orchestrated a terrific wine list, long with nice (and affordable) surprises.
She’s done the same at Café Ena, where we started with a flute of brut bubbly from Argentina, then proceeded to a summery flight of rose wines (three for $8). After snagging a booth along the window wall to watch the sun disappear, we piled honey-chipotle butter on our baguettes to get the juices flowing.
Actually, savoring the seafood ceviche required no such palate-priming. The bits and pieces of fish and shellfish arrived gently “cooked” with a squirt of lime juice and served with rounds of baked plantains for dipping.
Salivating for the chile relleno of my dreams, I summoned the chile en nogada, a roasted mild poblano pepper loaded with ground beef tossed (just as in Mexico City’s upscale eateries) with sweet raisins and savory almonds, then given a drizzle—here, Hector goes one better than in his homeland—a sweet-tart pomegranate glaze. But alas, the dish’s discrete tastes failed to come together.
My pal’s order of queso fresco proved a more serious mistake. The seared panela cheese had re-hardened almost the moment it left the flame and provided more drudgery than delight (apps and salads $7-$12).
From the 16 tempting main dishes with a Latin beat ($15-$24), we chose the Pescado, a composition of cardamom-blackened salmon served over a mélange of artichokes, roasted sweet peppers, grilled asparagus and fried plantains, all washed with a mild guajillo chile butter sauce and attended by a dab of pineapple salsa. The fish—decidedly on the salty side—arrived overcooked, thus dry, and its richly-sauced veggie mix failed to live up to its promise—in other words, a rather ordinary dish.
Same for the Borrego, a meaty, tender lamb shank kissed with deep-flavored adobo sauce and served with beans, rice and “escabeche” vegetables. Each element co-existed most politely but added little to each other.
The coconut-tres leches (desserts $6) didn’t quite make the cut, either—a little more dry, less rich than the customary reason you stray from your diet and order this iconic cake. Yet, the evening proved more, much more, than the sum of its parts, and we savored the experience. Ena is more mellow and laid-back than Indio with its happening vibe and more careful cooking. But, room for both. And more, let’s hope. Erin and Hector, keep ’em coming!