WALTHAM — When a new French restaurant opens in the place a longstanding French restaurant closed, or a vegan cafe where another vegan cafe failed, or a gastropub where a previous gastropub was hoisted by its own poutine, it makes you wonder. Amuleto Mexican Table didn’t just take over the former home of Habanero’s Mexican Kitchen. Before that the space was taqueria Tango Mango.
Third time is charming. Partners Adrian Ortiz and Karen Bressler have opened a modern little Mexican restaurant, not bogged down by Mexican-restaurant cliche. (He works in telecommunications; she was CEO of foodservice distributor AGAR Supply Co. and chairs the board of Community Servings, among other things.) The space is filled with rococo patterned velvet banquettes (“we are in the elegantly upholstered Disney-teacup-ride round table right by the entrance,” reads a message from a friend who arrives first). The soundtrack is free of mariachi riffs. The bar is all earth tones and natural wood, geometric patterns and dangling black metal light fixtures. The cocktail list highlights mezcal in a fashion that would do any bar in town proud, with nine varieties to sip, as well as drinks based around this smoky specialty of Oaxaca.
That is Ortiz’s home state. Chef Carlos Durazo, previously at now-closed Mexican restaurant Rio Bravo in Danvers, is from Sonora, and general manager Rogerio Padilla from Baja. Regions matter in Mexican, as in all, cuisine — the idea of “Mexican food” is comparable to that of “American,” “Chinese,” or “Indian” food in its elision of culture and character. Amuleto’s menu explores happily these differences, embracing mole, carne asada, fish tacos, Mexico City-style quesadillas. Some of the restaurant’s main dishes would be at home in any upscale bistro — grilled salmon al pastor, for example, or pork tenderloin with tamarind sauce. But the food works within tradition rather than exploding it. It is current, clean, and bright.
Almost every table seems to order the fresh, chunky guacamole. It is a measure of the avocado dip’s quality that Amuleto’s tortilla chips are not great — often only half-fried, soggy in parts — and no one minds too much. (The house salsas — tomatillo, habanero, and roasted tomato — work better dolloped on food than as solo dips.) The best part of starting a meal at Amuleto might be the complimentary dish of vegetable escabeche — pickled carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and more, bracing and refreshing.
Ceviche de coliflor has a similar flavor profile, the cauliflower folded together with fresh salsa and citrus. It’s a satisfying vegetarian alternative to the ceviche of the day, prepared with fish. Those who don’t eat meat will not feel cheated at Amuleto (unless, as we do one evening, they receive the guacamole made with pork belly rather than the meat-free version), where we have tart, cranberry-hued hibiscus tacos, roasted vegetable enchiladas, and chiles rellenos with quinoa. The menu also, unobtrusively, happens to be gluten-free.
There are two octopus dishes on the menu, both standouts. In pulpo asado, it appears grilled, with mushrooms, caramelized onions, and chiles, the tendrils’ exterior charred, their interior tender and delicate. Even better is a tostada topped with slices of octopus bound together with serrano-cilantro pesto, cucumber, and avocado aioli — some heat, some crunch, some richness to set off the mild meat.
Tortillas are made fresh each day, leaving the sweet, toasty scent of corn to linger on the fingertips after the tacos are gone. There is only one delicate wrapper per taco, rather than the double some places use. I miss the second not for structural issues — these are strong enough — but because I want more tortilla in each bite. The roast pork in the tacos al pastor is a bit dry, but it tastes good as a package, with pineapple and tomatillo salsa. Barbacoa tacos are excellent, piled with braised short rib, as flavorful as it is tender, and set to a slow burn with chile de arbol salsa.
DF-style quesadillas are masa turnovers, more like empanadas than the quesadillas we know. Two to a serving, one is filled with cheese and poblano pepper, the other with chicken tinga, the dough crisp on the outside and lightly, perfectly greasy. Enchiladas can be filled with chicken, shrimp, or vegetables, draped in green or red sauce or glossy, dark brown mole poblano. All of Amuleto’s sauces are made in house, and this complex specialty of Puebla is no exception, a blend of dozens of ingredients including cocoa, nuts, and spices. The flavor is deep and complicated, but the mole itself the night we try it is overly sweet. The green sauce, on the other hand, is too acidic. And the chicken in the enchiladas is dry.
Balance can be elusive. Pork tenderloin with tamarind sauce, crisp bits of pork belly, cotija cheese, and roast potatoes is a dish that works well when one can get a bite of every ingredient on the fork. Alone, there’s not enough oomph; more tamarind sauce would help. A beautifully grilled piece of salmon is served al pastor, with pineapple and tomatillo sauce, alongside kale and rice. The pineapple isn’t sweet enough to meet the tart tomatillos halfway, and there’s not enough of either element on the fish.
Camarones a la diabla cloaks shrimp in a creamy, warming chipotle sauce; it is the Mexican equivalent of chicken tikka masala. Charred green beans enhance the smokiness of the sauce, and the rice is bright with lime. Here we have balance.
Birria de chamorro is a braised lamb shank, sliced green chiles, red onion, and cilantro vivid against a backdrop of savory jus. It is described as being wrapped in a banana leaf, but that is removed before it arrives at the table. Also not in evidence, hominy puree, a disappointment, although a few whole kernels float in the broth. Carne asada is a spot-on version — the grilled steak rare on the inside, accompanied by a cheese enchilada cloaked in guajillo chile sauce, refried beans, and guacamole.
Amuleto’s flan is a denser version than I’ve had elsewhere, nearly cream cheese-like in texture and not at all eggy. I prefer the rice pudding brulee and a parfait of chocolate pudding studded with bites of chocolate. The best dessert here is the heady cafe a la Karlos, spiked with mezcal and coffee liqueur. Karlos, a bartender, comes by with a wave and a nod. Amuleto’s servers are warm and attentive, and gifted at sensing when someone is in need of another drink.
The surprise winner among the many margarita variations, ordered on a lark, is the frozen one. Made with tamarind, mango, and strawberry, it is a riff on the chamoyada, a sort of Mexican Slurpee. It is a little sweet and a little spicy, a little sour. Bartenders are happy to share their mezcal knowledge, and drinks like the Oaxaca Old Fashioned (mezcal, agave nectar, and bitters) and the jamaica mezcalini (hibiscus, mezcal, clove, cardamom, and ginger) showcase it well. There is also a selection of Mexican beer, micheladas in mugs the size of your head, and sangria. “Ask your server for wine selection.”
In another city, Amuleto would feel less remarkable. We still have just a handful of good Mexican restaurants here, and we continue to wait for the place that successfully combines fine dining and the country’s rich culinary tradition. Amuleto’s name means “amulet” or “talisman,” and a little cosmic good fortune never hurts. But with warm hospitality and good taste, Amuleto is making its own luck.