Packing Serious Heat Authentic Mexican Fare That Begs to Be Shared By KARLA COOK – THE NEW YORK TIMES

Packing Serious Heat   Authentic Mexican Fare That Begs to Be Shared  By KARLA COOK  – THE NEW YORK TIMES

January 20, 2014

If you find yourself in Flemington, land of chain restaurants and outlet malls, and you hunger in your soul and in your belly for something more-maybe delicate tortilla chips with head-clearing salsa, tender lamb soup with cilantro, sharp and sweet cactus and jicama salad, succulent slabs of chiken enclosed in a house-made cloak of velvety masa drizzled with a piquant green sauce, or a round of dense and golden flan, then get off the main drag and go to Viva Mexico.

Or, if you find yourself at home, and you begin thinking of poblano chiles and the way their sly heat plays against the way their sly heat plays against the fresh, slight crunch of the flesh and the satisfaction of the meaty filing and the red sauce and then a fork full of beans, without a few grains of rice, then drive to Flemington, or better yet, call up a few friends and go together. This is food you want to share.

Viva Mexico is a family-run restaurant, with Librado Arias at the stove, his wife, Blanca Lavo, running the front of the house, and his parents offering support and recipes. Mr. Arias, 28, and Ms. Lavo, also 28,opened the place in December 2002, he says, after many years of working and learning in other people’s restaurants. They picked Flemington because the space was available, and because they saw a need for authentic Mexican fare in the town.

The restaurant is is a newish strip mall, with little character and even less parking unless you pull around back, where there is yet another ring of strip mall. Inside, the celling is low, the light bright and the floor tiled, all adding up, for me, to a generatly sinking feeling. But the place had come highly recommended, and any trepidation was whisked away when the server greeted us with a big smile and unfailingly professional, efficient service.

The menu is an appetizing two pages, and is served up with a bowl of beguilingly light chips and a brash salsa that packs heat with jalapeƱo peppers. Diced winter tomatoes do little more than keep the bits of onion from touching each other, but in all, it’s a pleasantly hot experience underline by cilantro and lime.

Soups are a bit uneven-on one cold Thursday night, the Huajillo chiken broth was complex and satisfying, especially when enriched by bits of avocado, tomato and still crips tortilla bits. On another night, it was merely thin. The same goes for the shredded chiken soup with rice. Black bean soup was smooth and somewhat thin, but the lamb shank soup, a special on night, was roundly flavored and very satisfying, with its carrots, parships and Swiss chard adding lightness to the meat and broth. Of the appetizer, two were strikingly similar, the huaraches-thick corn tortillas made in house with beans, fresh juliened cactus paddles, cilantro and cotija cheese and the sopes, which substituted lettuce for the cactus. And we came too late to try the calamari appetizer on the board one Saturday night.

But things started looking up with the salads, which were different from the typical mescalin. The first, a tangle of crisp, slightly peppery watercress echoed by slivers of radish, is softened by creamy avocado and then evened with a lemon vinaigrette sparked by poblano pepper, cilantro and fresh thyme-or whatever Mr. Arias can find on his Tuesday trips to the Philadelphia produce market. The second a compilation of fresh nopal cactus, julienned jicama, those winter tomatoes and avocado, all sprinkled with cayenne, is the kind of salad that you find yourself craving weeks later. Cactus paddle plays nicely against the sweetness of the jicama, green against white, yellow green against pale tomato – and then it is gone, and we’re walting for the main dishes.

But we were not kept waiting long; despite a full house, the server kept her eyes on our progress, and soon the platters arrive. They are a curious mix of old and new – new, fresh versions of Mexican favorites, spunky sauces, innovative combinations of crips-tender vegetables for sides, plus old-style heaping helpings of rice and beans piled so high that they could endanger the edge of the plate if held slightly askew. Table favorites included the aforementioned chiles rellenos and the tamales, but there is a clear understanding of meat and flavoring here as well.

Of a dozen or so main dishes, only the shrimp suffered from overcooking, but all were enhanced by a marinade, a sauce or the grill. The grilled chicken breast, for example, could have been a wizened wreck, but instead was plump and sassy with its salsa verde and peek-a-boo strips of nopalitos. Steaks were popular on both visits. The chipotle-marinated sirloin held a predictably smoky undertone; the beef strips with jalapeƱos, onions, tomatoes and guacamole was a classic for anyone seeking heat and relief simultaneously. The grilled skirt steak, with its onion and poblano strips, was several paces behind on the heat, but equal on full-bodied flavor, but it was the cumin-scented pork tenderloin dressed in green sauce and those emerald green nopalitos that held real star quality.

The four desserts are house-made and delicious; there’s a smooth and silky caramel flan; a mile-high wedge of three-milk cake; a mildly sweet rice pudding; and a thin round of sweet rice pudding; and a thin round of sweet pastry topped with ice cream and syrup. So we lingered, eating just one more bite to prolong a meal that was so bright and fresh, so truly exotic, that we closed the place down. As we said goodnight, we saw a small child sprawled, asleep, in an out-of-the-way sport in the kitchen, It’s the American dream, said a friend, and she was right.

 
 

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