Hey, I may come off in print as a bloated narcissist, but I do get my comeuppance often enough. Take, for example, a question I had for a colleague after visiting the six-month-old Coyoacán steak house on South Central Avenue. The restaurant sits nearly at the foot of South Mountain, and the blinking red lights of the mountain's communication towers are the area's dominant nighttime landmark.
"So, what do folks call those lights on South Mountain?" I wondered to a wizened New Times vet, assuming there must be an amusing localism for them, like "Satan's playpen," or some other quaint place name lost on a relative newcomer.
"Uh, they usually call them 'those lights on South Mountain,'" came the reply.
9014 South Central Avenue
Nopal Hidalgo: $8.95
Filet mignon: $26.95
Mole poblano: $16.95
Grilled venison: $21.95
(www.coyoacansteak.com), 602-323-9010. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, lunch, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.; closed Monday.
Okay, so maybe I don't know everything, though you have to admit "Satan's playpen" would be an improvement. However, I know when I come across exceptional dining, as is the case with Coyoacán. Named after that historic district of Mexico City once frequented by such luminaries as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, Coyoacán ("place of the coyotes" in the Aztec tongue) boasts friendly, efficient service, enchanting decor, and a kitchen commanded by chef Moises Treves. Many in town are familiar with Treves from his past work at the much-admired Such Is Life on 24th Street, now operating under the name Asi es la Vida.
Coyoacán's interior certainly lives up to its illustrious namesake. From the road, neophytes will have few clues to the elegance within, unless the Benzes and Beamers in the parking lot tip 'em off. Past the sturdy, wooden doorway are marble floors, a long, elegant bar, and a color scheme of ochre, burnt orange, and reddish-brown paneling. High-backed wood-and-rattan chairs encircle linen-draped tables. To one side is a colorful painting of a pre-Hispanic marketplace. And on the opposite wall is a depiction of one of those mysterious stone heads fashioned by the ancient Olmecs. It's an impressive environment, one equally matched, for the most part, by Treves' creations. (Kudos to owner Juan Sanchez for matching chef to venue.)
For dinner, Coyoacán lays out a small smorgasbord. Steaks and other entrees are accompanied by seven to nine side dishes, rotated daily. During my visits, these included sweet green beans, Spanish rice, garlic mashed potatoes, refried beans, a large dinner salad with a tangy dressing, roasted corn with chiles, tomatoey zucchini bits, sauted mushrooms, pickled beets and so on.
Prior to the sides come six house-made salsas, then a basket of warm tortillas. Unlike the sides, the salsas stay the same: green tomatillo, pico de gallo, a tongue-tickling roasted tomato, set-your-mouth-afire habanero, a chipotle with a bit of a bite, and a smoky brown-black pasilla. No chips here, señor. These condiments are to be eaten with your food and tortillas.
Some of the best and worst menu items are listed as appetizers. Let's do the worst first, as they are exceptions to the eatery's general excellence. Neither the ceviche nor the shrimp cocktail found favor with me. The first was chewy and unappetizing. Calamari are normally somewhat chewy, of course, but still, squid shouldn't taste like gutta-percha. As for the shrimp cocktail, the sauce was flavorful, but the shrimp were stale. A big disappointment.
Covering such shrimp in melted Monterey cheese, along with roasted garlic, and layering the lot of it over a large poblano, now that's a different matter. If the shrimp were stale in this case, I couldn't tell, and thus, this stuffed "Veracruz" chile was a success. Similarly, the cheese "fondue," served in a little skillet, with mushrooms and chorizo, all melted into one gooey mass, was scrumptious.
The nopal Hidalgo, grilled prickly pear covered in the same elements as the fondue above, engendered pure gustatory delight. The prickly pear was slightly sour and somewhat viscous, like okra, yet terribly addicting. It's such a splendid appetizer that I plan to have it each time I visit.
Steak-wise, I had a stab at a T-bone and a filet mignon. I wouldn't return to Coyoacán just for the beef, but each cut was of good quality and grilled well. I'd rather go back for all of the superb non-steak items. The pork chops, for instance, topped with slices of pineapple, were more memorable (and less expensive), as was the venison, three long, thin strips of cured deer flesh, garnished with a grilled green onion. The venison especially won over my palate, even though I did not finish the platter then and there. I took the remainder home (something I almost never do) and feasted on the remnants after a bout of prolonged, midweek boozing. My, but did it tame the ol' post-tippling tapeworm!
Unlike the venison, the mole poblano and cochinita pibil weren't lucky enough to survive their initial joust with my appetite. See, I'm a mole fanatic. Indeed, I consider a dark, chocolaty mole sauce, such as that served by Coyoacán, one of the greatest boons to mankind, especially when it covers tender morsels of chicken. By St. Peter's holy breeches, chocolate chicken?! If that's not a genius concept on a par with French toast and the backyard barbecue, I don't know what is.
The second of these, the cochinita pibil, is shredded pork baked in rust-colored achiote sauce. As advised by my server, I added generous amounts of habanero to the pork, which gave the swine some extra zest. By itself, that habanero relish could fuel a VW, but mashed into the pork, its heat diffuses, adding a piquancy to the dish.
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SHOW ME HOW
I got around to two of Coyoacán's desserts, a caramel crepe with a hint of tequila, sprinkled with chopped nuts, which went down pretty well, save that the crepe was a little tough; and the flan napolitano, sort of a cross between a flan and a cheesecake. (Insert your own gubernatorial joke here.) Yes, the napolitano was rich and creamy, but between cheesecake and flan, I'd rather have flan. And make mine eggy and custardy, bubba, or don't make it at all!
But if I can't have a traditional flan at Coyoacán instead of some hybrid, I'm going to start referring to "those lights on South Mountain" as "Lucifer's footlocker." And you wait, I'll bet it'll catch on, too.