By Elizabeth Keyser
3:05 PM EST, February 27, 2013
49 Fort Point St.,Norwalk, (203) 854-9283
82 Fort Point St., Norwalk, (203) 866 6256
1660 Park Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 384-2377, lapoblanitarestaurant.com
Mexican is the theme park of food trends, with restaurateurs designing hip, upscale scenes that emulate the downscale. That's great. But I'm living the downscale. Rather than go to a restaurant named after a bodega, I find the real one. I've got a couple favorite Mexican dives that make you feel like you're in Mexico. Places where the food is good and the price is right.
Los Portales is not where to go with your girlfriends for quesadillas and nachos. Cramped into an old wooden house, on the corner of Fort Point Street in Norwalk, not far from the dump, oh, excuse me, transfer station, it's a crowded hangout for the workers of Fairfield County. I first wrote about it 10 years ago. I went early in the morning to watch them make fresh corn tortillas, which puffed up on the griddle in a way I've been trying to copy ever since (it's harder than you think). I bought my tortilla press and first bag of masa — the lime-treated corn flour — at Los Portales. They also sell fresh tomatillos, cilantro, dried chiles, and packaged goods. The butcher's counter is filled with meat that hasn't been prepackaged, a reminder that oxygen turns meat brown.
The other day I sat down at one of the tables squeezed into the center of the room, and reviewed the organ-meat extravaganza of a menu. You want nose-to-tail eating? It's all here, cow's head, pork stomach, tongue, tripe. This is the food of working people. Tacos are $3. I liked the gelatinous quality of the pork stomach and the browned, caramelized bits. Like the cow's head, the meat is simmered till tender, then fried on the griddle. Then it's laid upon a double layer of corn tortillas and topped with raw onion and cilantro. Go to the salsa bar for a choice of salsas and pickled jalapenos and carrots.
I like tripe, and that's what I ordered, but what I was served (translation issue?) was actually chitterlings and it kind of freaked me out. There was something about the texture of the tubular chunks and the funk that made me not want to eat the pieces that fell from my taco. We love what is most familiar and my favorite taco was the pork al pastor, the tender, chile-rubbed morsels of meat.
Tacos are the perfect food. The soft, warm corn tortilla enveloping and carrying a bundle of chopped meat, fresh cilantro and the raw bite of chopped onions, dressed with salsa. No matter the type of salsa — salsa fresco, spicy green tomatillo, or darker, dried chile-based salsa, I love it all. Tacos always hit the spot.
Just down the street on Fort Point, right off East Avenue near the train station, is Tacos Mexico; I discovered it about 10 years ago. On a recent visit I was glad to see that their awesome popularity has caused them to expand and build a bar. (My friends love the tequila drinks made with fresh juices.)
Tacos Mexico is flooded on weekends with working families enjoying a break. On a recent weekend afternoon it was so packed I walked in and out again. But I returned a few days later for weekday lunch. It was less crowded but still busy, with a steady stream of regulars. Three big men at another table smiled as they put their spoons into big goblets of soupy shrimp ceviche.
Tacos Mexico has a $6.99 daily lunch special that begins with a cup of soup of the day. I've been served a brothy, flavorful bean and vegetable soup, and the other day, a creamy bean soup topped with fried tortilla strips and a sprinkle of queso fresco. Both soups were the highlights of lunch. Tacos tri colore, a lunch special, was a pretty dish of three chicken tacos, bright orange rice and beans. Squiggles of crema and queso fresco divided the half sauced with green tomatillo and the other half dressed in fresh orange-hued tomato sauce. One warning: the parking lot is small and crowded, and you'll wish you'd parked on the street.
La Poblanita on Park Avenue in Bridgeport isn't in the greatest neighborhood, but it's not in the worst either. And it's not a beautiful restaurant. The walls are amateurishly sponged blue, there are philodendrons snaking around the room, and it's noisy with the sound of Spanish TV and sometimes music too. But La Poblanita is always full of Spanish-speaking people eating heartily. Lately, I'm in a tepango enchiladas phase because I love the spicy adobo sauce. But there was a time when I had to have the chicken enchiladas in green sauce. If you dine with a group of friends, or order a whole bunch of food for delivery, try the chicken poblanita — chicken and meaty, skinned poblano chiles. I've also enjoyed the chipotle-infused seafood soup. To drink, there are wonderful fresh juices. We order watermelon, with a shot of tequila on the side, which we sip.
Don't get me wrong, I love that some of Connecticut's best chefs have delved into Mexican cuisine and are elevating it and creating fun atmospheres in which to eat it. But Los Portales, Tacos Mexico and La Poblanita are the real deal.
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