Location: 11 Smithfield St., Downtown. 412-391-2591
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Fare: Traditional Mexican
Atmosphere: Budget ethnic
Smoking: None Permitted
Remember those old-fashioned blenders that had 14 speeds, each with its own distinct name? As if we were supposed to know, or care, about the difference between puree and frappe, beat and whip. But we can imagine one of these in the kitchen of a modern Mexican restaurant, producing the sauces and salsas of traditional Mexican cuisine to exacting specifications. For the best Mexican cooking explores this breadth of texture with sauces ranging from hand-cut pico de gallo through chunky roasted salsa roja to velvety chocolate-chili mole poblano. In fact, one of the great pleasures of learning about authentic Mexican food is learning about its array of salsas -- indeed, learning that salsa and mole simply mean sauce, and apply to everything from red to green to black, from raw to cooked.
Mexico City, the latest in our city's burgeoning stable of intimate, authentic Mexican restaurants, isn't especially exotic, offering gringo-friendly fare such as tostadas and taco salad. But its salsas exceed just about anything you could have found locally even five years ago. Red salsa from tomatoes. Green salsa from tomatillos. Red mole, a sweet and spicy chocolate sauce. Green mole, flavored by ground pumpkin seeds. These and other sauces make Mexico City's menu delightfully varied amid a standard selection of dishes.
Ingredients, too, are not limited to beef or chicken, but take in lamb, two forms of pork, and chorizo, the spicy, crumbly national sausage. In this, Mexico City stays one step ahead of maturing local tastes, offering uncommon ingredients that diners may have tried once and craved again, as well as even less-assimilated ones to tempt the adventurous palate.
Jason started with a quick chorizo taco, served on double soft corn tortillas with rice, guacamole (that would be "avocado sauce" in Spanish-ized Aztec) and a thick red sauce that our server couldn't name. No matter -- it was all delicious, the sausage on the edge of serious spiciness, its heat tempered by the fluffy rice.
Angelique tucked into a satisfying bowl of tortilla soup. The deep russet-colored broth was warmly seasoned, but stopped short of spicy heat. Thick strips of homemade tortilla retained their body in the liquid; the soup also was flavorfully dressed with perfectly ripe avocado slices, and just enough sharp onion, cool sour cream and queso fresco.
When it came to ordering entrées, Jason reviewed the entire menu, but there was really no question about it: He had to try the "Black and Gold Burrito," a burrito with your choice of filling, and topped with -- ready, Stillers fans? -- black and gold sauces. Gold was a sort of homemade nacho cheese, with melted cheddar and chipotle, while black was chile pasilla with roasted tomatillo, garlic and onion, all ground silky smooth. The concept was clever, and the presentation, with crumbled queso on top, was festive. The filling of marinated pork was quite satisfactory, with tender shreds of flavorful meat. But the pork tended to get smothered by the sauces, and the sauces failed to make this dish truly special. The golden cheese concoction was certainly a step up from nacho cheese, but the black sauce was slightly harsh, as if the components weren't well roasted.
On the other hand, mole verde, a green pumpkin-seed sauce, was the crowning glory of Angelique's thoroughly enjoyable chicken enchiladas. Tender, finely shredded chicken was subtly spiced and deliciously accented with onion, cilantro, sour cream and queso fresco. Draped over it all, the mole verde was thick with coarsely ground seeds imparting a rich, hearty, nutty flavor.
Mexico City's blend of rock-bottom prices (no dish over $7) and authentic salsas and moles make it a welcome addition to Pittsburgh's Mexican dining milieu.