Cafe Reviews

El Chiltepin: Offbeat Mexican Food Mixed with Traditional Favorites

El Chiltepin is as much a restaurant as it is a mad scientist's laboratory: an offbeat little place where Mexican and American ingredients and flavors are pieced together to create a parade of Frankenstein-style street food the likes of which the tortured doctor himself might be hardpressed not to try. Here, mozzarella meets jumbo hand-made empanadas, bacon cozies up to Mexican meats on pizzas oozing cheese inside their "crusts," and one-of-a-kind inspirations are named and released as new items for guests to savor and scratch their heads over equally.

The culinary chaos isn't surprising when you hear the story behind El Chiltepin's owners and operators: Carmen Mendoza and Osvaldo Hernandez (who goes by "Ted" because, well, because). The longtime couple (and first-timers in the restaurant business) have been training on the job since they opened El Chiltepin (named for Mendoza's father, who used to pick the wild chile peppers in her hometown of Sonora, Mexico) in March 2011.

"We both like to cook and have always dreamed of owning our own restaurant," Hernandez says with a smile (he is always smiling). "But in the beginning, we didn't even know how to wrap up our burritos."

The recession has claimed (and continues to claim) many Valley restaurants, but Hernandez and Mendoza started theirs because of it. When money from their day jobs became scarce (Hernandez was a tile worker and Mendoza owned a beauty salon), the couple decided it was as good a time as any to take a chance on making their dream a reality. They pooled what money they had left to open El Chiltepin in the heart of a south-side Mexican neighborhood. Mendoza's daughter created the restaurant's mascot: a cartoon pepper donning cowboy boots and flashing a toothy grin comically similar to Hernandez's. And the menu, to start, consisted of just a few items scrawled on a piece of cardboard over the ordering counter.

Since then, El Chiltepin's selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner offerings has grown and changed, and it continues to be in flux. The food is a unique mix of traditional Mexican eats from Mendoza's Sonoran past, Americanized Mexican snack foods the Phoenix-born Hernandez remembers being inspired by during his lunch breaks from laying tile, and the couple's shared interest in healthier cooking (canola oil, not lard) as well as a love for mozzarella cheese — the only kind to be found at the restaurant.

As in any laboratory, some El Chiltepin experiments yield successful results, and others, well, not so much. But it's the try-anything attitude of Hernandez and Mendoza that gives their restaurant its charm. And with enough good eats on the menu — many unheard of in the Valley — it's worth popping by. Plus, there's a chance you'll get to taste the latest experiment coming out of the lab, er, kitchen, which, at the restaurant's wallet-friendly prices, is one you can afford to sample.

Given El Chiltepin's penchant for change, it's best to think of the menu as a go-by. Some items, the hígado encebollado (liver and onions) for instance, haven't been offered in months, while others seem to exist only if inquired after or suggested by Mendoza. The standards are there as well — tacos, burritos, tortas, empanadas, and quesadillas. And just to keep things interesting, several items arrive wrapped in foil paper marked with the word "hamburger."

A good place to start is with the proteins.

The carne asada is tender and satisfying on its own but fares better as asada chiltepin, in which, thanks to a marinade made with what's sometimes referred to as the "mother of all peppers," the grilled meat has a fiery bite. The barbacoa, lightly seasoned and moist, is best as an entree alongside rice and beans. Just as good is the spicier green chile beef. And fans of offal will be satisfied with a dark and beefy cabeza as well as tangy-hot chicharrón. Unfortunately, due to their lesser quality, the chicken and shrimp should be avoided altogether, especially as failed burrito-like creations called "burritas," in which the rolled tortillas are topped with avocado, tomatoes, sour cream, and cheese atop a bed of iceberg lettuce.

A recent addition to the meaty fare, and by far the most stellar, is the al pastor. Not on the menu (make sure to ask for it), its success can be attributed to a friend of Hernandez's who owns one of the popular al pastor stands found throughout Mexico City. He helped Hernandez set up his own vertical spit of pork, topped with pineapple, as well as sharing his recipe and cooking methods. The result is wonderfully tender and mild pork with a touch of sweet.

Most all the meats can be had in good-quality flour or corn tortillas in the form of burritos or street-size tacos alongside a hazy and mild tomatillo and a smoky-hot red sauce made with chiltepin peppers. Too much bread and not enough filling makes the tortas fall short of those served at the Valley's better-known torta shops. And if you like your empanadas giant-size, two make a meal at El Chiltepin. Topped with shredded mozzarella, fillings (the best is the green chile with bits of potato) are housed in a sweet and delicately crispy dough Hernandez makes himself using two cutting boards pushed together to properly fold them into shape.

But it is El Chiltepin's non-traditional fare that can be the most fun and — when it works — the most flavorful. Hernandez's latest creation, Ricas Patadas, features two tortillas fused together and filled with the exceptional al pastor then deep-fried to a golden brown and topped with onion, cilantro, mozzarella, and guacamole. Crispy and multi-flavored, I could see this tasty snack right at home in street food Bizarro World. And Hernandez tells me he didn't just come up with the Montada, his version of the Mexican pizza; he dreamt it up — literally.

"We were in Las Vegas at a big party with rock 'n' roll stars," he says. "There were all these wonderful snacks on the table that we were eating. I asked someone what they were and they told me, 'Montadas.' Then I woke up and I made them for the restaurant."

Addictively tasty, the Montada arrives as melted mozzarella cheese between two crispy tortillas topped with more melted mozzarella, carne asada, bits of salty bacon, and jalapeños. Just as tasty and new to El Chiltepin (naturally) is the al pastor Montada, which swaps out the steak with pieces of the slightly sweet and tender pork.

Like its menu, the El Chiltepin building also is in a state of change. Previously more a fast-food stand, Hernandez has kept the drive-thru but is covering the wraparound patio, so, by next summer, guests can sit at one of the tile-topped tables in a brightly colored air-conditioned room. To distinguish itself from the surrounding Mexican restaurants, its cartoon mascot, El Chiltepin, can be found on signs inside and out — directing guests to the drive-thru (not as fast as most, since the food is freshly made) and inviting folks to "Enjoy our food!" and, at the front of the building, happily cutting a slice of pork from an al pastor spit.

"We don't like repetition," Hernandez tells me. "These are our own creations, and you won't find them anywhere else."

Spoken like a true mad scientist.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld