The word on Boston’s dining scene has always been the same: We’re starved for a great Mexican restaurant. Forget “authentic,” a word that doesn’t mean much, anyway. We’ll settle for a place that at least attempts something beyond chimichangas and flautas; even then, we won’t complain as long as they’re tasty and priced right.
But a truly spectacular Mexican restaurant brimming with fresh ideas and unusual menu items? We’re still waiting.
When El Centro opened in the South End in 2011, it appeared we were moving in the right direction. Chef-owner Allan Rodriguez’s cozy spot on Shawmut Avenue reminded me so much of the interesting restaurants I used to frequent when I lived in Xalapa, the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. El Centro split the difference between the typical Mexican offerings in this town: either high-end (Olé, Temazcal) or hole-in-the-wall joints where you hear only Spanish (any place in Eastie).
It’s a shame, then, that the newish outpost of the restaurant, called El Centro Dos, is such a disappointment in Brookline Village, especially since they share the same menu.
To be fair, we had a wholly lackluster first visit, after I had gone alone a few times and enjoyed my meals. But in mid-December, the idea of hearty Mexican food on a sleepy, snowy Saturday was intoxicating. Until we sit down at El Centro Dos, which opened in June. Everything is off – the rhythm, the food, the service, the ambience.
It’s dead quiet at 8:30 p.m., which isn’t the restaurant’s fault, but it doesn’t help that the waitstaff looks upon us as if we have crashed their dinner party. Our server, a stone-faced young woman who is as frosty as the snow drifting outside, has to deliver the bad news: “We don’t have camarones papantla tonight.” And then again: “We can’t make mojitos.” And once more: “We’re out of horchata.” Menu omissions happen, of course, but it would be nice to know in advance.
That initial impression was so humdrum that I waited till the holidays had passed to return. At least the space is festive, with wood tables and Latin pop blaring from the speakers. A painting of artist Frida Kahlo, unibrow intact, looms large on one wall, while the others are lined with Mexican folk art. They’re welcome splashes of color in a room that otherwise can feel a bit bloodless, too quiet.
The second visit has more of the original location’s spark. Camarones papantla (at $22, they’re $2 over the Cheap limit) are available this time, and we’re glad they are: Tender shrimp, five of them, come wrapped in bacon with a hint of cheese and sides of rice and avocado. Even more straightforward is the cochinita píbil ($16), a massive mound of shredded pork perfect for shoveling into warm tortillas with refried beans and pickled carrots that give each bite a slight crunch.
The service is still tentative, and that’s ultimately the shorthand for El Centro Dos: Everything about it is timid, as if you’re watching a meal unfold on television — on mute. Just about every dish could use a pinch of salt, and the flavors are pleasant but hardly ever pronounced.
I’d return, though, for at least a few dishes, including the terrific sopa de tortilla ($8). The light broth is clean and redolent of tomato, with a generous amount of thin tortilla strips floating amid the hunks of chicken. It’s the epitome of Mexican comfort food.
The same could be said of the enfrijoladas Oaxaqueñas ($14), an underappreciated staple of Mexican cuisine that’s similar to enchiladas but with a creamy black bean sauce in place of the usual red or green salsas. El Centro has nearly perfected the dish; my only quibble is that the Oaxacan-style preparation fills the corn tortillas with cheese instead of shredded chicken, and all those soft textures tend to blend together.
Margaritas and mojitos lead a beverage program that doesn’t take advantage of the full bar, relying solely on tequila shots, a few types of sangrias, a handful of red and white wines, and several Mexican beers.
For dessert ($7), there are two options. The flan is your standard but solid take on the custard-like dish, but the Tres Leches is so dry that it prompts one of us to quip, “This is more like Una Leche,” a joke about how only one type of milk had been used in the cake instead of three.
We’re eager for a great Mexican restaurant in this town, but we certainly won’t tolerate a mediocre one. Three such spots have closed this month alone: Mission Cantina in Brookline, Ken Oringer’s La Verdad on Lansdowne Street, and Michael Schlow’s Barrio Cantina, also in the Fenway area. They’re gone because they never made much of a mark. Hopefully El Centro Dos realizes that before its own future is sealed.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.