[Sidebar] December 2 - 9, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Simple, down-to-earth cooking

by Johnette Rodriguez

948 Atwells Avenue, Providence, 331-4985
Open Tues-Thurs, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Sun, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
No credit cards
Sidewalk access

If the east end of Atwells Avenue is Providence's Little Italy, then the west end is definitely a Latino enclave, including a Dominican diner, several Spanish markets, a Guatemalan restaurant and a Mexican restaurant called, simply, Mexico. Run by Pepe Garibaldi and his family for the past 12 years, Mexico is popular with students, neighborhood residents and anyone who is seeking Mexican food that is not Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex or otherwise Ameri-Mex.

In 1997, Mexico moved from its original location, which had six tables and long lines out the door, to a larger space just a block away, more than tripling its seating capacity. The decor has brightened considerably, with two shades of coral on woodwork and walls, and large, colorful representations of traditional Mexican-Indian gods and heroes painted directly on the walls. There are also serape-like curtains and a Spanish-language jukebox.

Though English-speaking staff are scarce, a quick glance at the menu is reassuring. Many items, such as burritos and tacos, sound familiar, and translations are provided for all items. Previous visits to Mexico introduced us to horchata ($1), a refreshing drink often made from crushed almonds, though Mexico's version is sweet rice milk, tinged with cinnamon. We each sipped a glassful while we contemplated the menu.

Mexico offers many variations of burritos, tacos, quesadillas and tostadas, plus 10 "main dishes," none above $8. With nine of these, you get a generous plate of rice, beans, salad and warm tortillas -- although with the fajitas de pollo there are no rice or beans. Four of the dishes are beef, including one that is pork, another that is barbequed goat, and tongue with tomatoes and onions.

Never one to pass up a challenge, my dining partner picked out a goat burrito ($2.50) and was thoroughly pleased with the size and seasonings of his dish. A large flour tortilla encased the shredded goat meat, along with beans, lettuce and sour cream.

He also ordered chicken tamales in red sauce ($4.50) and was again overwhelmed by the large portion. The steamed masa harina (corn flour) casing of the three tamales had turned orange from spices and sauce (though not hot spices) and it surrounded a stuffing of flavorful shredded chicken.

I chose chiles rellenos ($6.50) from the main dishes, in this case one substantial poblano pepper stuffed with mild white cheese. The whole pepper is then egg-battered and lightly fried. At Mexico, it is served with a delicious red sauce atop the pepper, plus tasty pinto beans and rice (the latter perked up with corn niblets), a salad with plenty of cilantro and lime, and a basket of warm tortillas. It was all quite delicious and satisfying.

I had looked forward to the flan for dessert, but it was a Sunday evening, and our waitress told us it had been a busy weekend, and the flan was sold out. Another weekend specialty listed in the menu is menudo y pozole, an aromatic soup made from tripe and hominy.

Other favorites from past visits have been the mushroom, zucchini or potato quesadillas, the seasoned ground pork tacos and the tongue gorditas (a thick hand-made tortilla). The fajitas are also excellent: fork-tender bits of chicken that are marinated in a spicy lime marinade before being grilling alongside peppers, onions and tomatoes.

And don't miss the low-key nachos, listed as chips ($1) or chips with beans and cheese ($2.50). Modest though they may be, these thick, crispy triangles of corn tortilla sit atop a warm, soupy bed of mashed pintos and respond marvelously to the red and green sauces on the table (the green is significantly hotter). Eventhe deluxe version is sprinkled with white cheese, not drowned in a sea of orange.

These chips are emblematic of Mexico's down-to-earth cooking: no-nonsense, straightforward flavors, nothing fancy or nouvelle, just the basic ingredients, simmered and seasoned as they were, no doubt, in the kitchen of Pepe's grandmother. Just think tamales instead of chicken soup. ?

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