Sounds of activity and a moving jumble of colors soon had us craning to look across the restaurant. On the other side of the room, a couple employees were fully engrossed in a decorating job. Expertly, they draped three sides of an alcove with purple tissue paper and then trained pink crepe-paper ribbon and orange marigolds into an arch against the alcove's rear wall.
When we saw a young woman with long black hair hefting a skull in each hand, we went over for a closer look.
Emma Bonilla graciously explained that they were making an All Souls' altar in observance of the annual Day of the Dead. As she talked she arranged grinning plastic skulls and slim white candles on a series of risers set beneath the arch.
"Tonight," she said softly but matter-of-factly, "the spirits of the children come, so we will put out sweets and chocolates--anything they liked to eat." She added a few more candles.
"Tomorrow is when the adults will come, and then we will put out the foods they enjoyed." When we asked, she told us that she especially wanted to greet her father, who died seven years ago.
Bonilla finished the altar by surrounding it with armloads of sharp-scented marigolds in buckets on the floor. "Come back and visit it," she suggested. "We will keep it up for a while."
After picking up a warm, sugary loaf of seasonal "bread of the dead" to take home later, we returned to our table to order, feeling rather like exchange students welcomed by a kind and lively family.
And that is the beauty of eating at Mi Pueblo, the thoroughly charming, authentically Mexican restaurant that recently opened on Euclid Avenue. It is an offshoot of a smaller, West Side taqueria jointly owned by the same five partners.
Jose Medina, who came to the United States fifteen years ago from the south-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, says it all began when he couldn't find food in Cleveland like his mother used to make.
"It was hard, you know? No one was doing that kind of cooking, and it was hard to find the ingredients," he explains. "We thought the community needed someplace like this."
He and brother Luis, along with another set of brothers, Gerardo and Adrian Ortega from the nearby state of Michoacàn, decided to make it their business to meet that need, and about two years ago they opened their Mi Pueblo taqueria and an attached Hispanic market on Lorain Avenue.
The market is crammed with exotic ingredients--all the things you read about in Mexican cookbooks but can never find in a suburban supermarket. The produce section stocks fleshy nopales, apple-like chayotes, papery tomatillos, and an assortment of chili peppers; on the shelves you'll find rice-water concentrate, corn husks for tamales, and herbs like wormseed, pigweed, and goosefoot.
Beside the market sits the tiny storefront restaurant. A whirl of enticing aromas, bright colors, and very loud Mexican music, the place attracts a steady stream of Hispanics and Anglos--some in suits, some in muddy work boots--to sample big burritos, overstuffed torta sandwiches, and homemade menudo (tripe) soup served with warm tortillas.
The new location is quite different. Considerably larger than the Lorain Avenue spot, it has an expanded menu with more dinner and seafood choices and a bar that serves sangria, margaritas, and an assortment of Mexican and domestic beers.
It must be said that the crosstown expansion has gentrified Mi Pueblo. Gone are the orange booths and red flooring that brighten the Lorain Avenue location; here, they are replaced by subdued earth tones, Mexican tilework, clay pots filled with brilliant paper flowers, and wooden chairs carved with sun faces, vines, and other traditional motifs. And although music plays in the background at both locations, it doesn't seem to reach the ear-splitting decibels here that it does at the West Side taqueria.
But while the customers here are more likely to be Anglo or Asian than Hispanic, the same simple Mexican food remains at the heart of the new operation. Gerardo Ortega runs the Euclid Avenue kitchen, making almost everything from scratch, from family recipes. Working with traditional ingredients like chilis, cilantro, onions, tomatillos, and white Chihuahua cheese, he creates zippy salsas, massive burritos, and a delicious guacamole. (The menudo is out, but a beef-tongue torta remains on the menu.)
During our Day of the Dead visit, we studied the menu while nibbling on Gerardo's crisp tortilla chips and robust salsas. We especially liked the "red" salsa, which is actually green, though not as green as the "green" salsa (Got it?), filled with aromatic chopped cilantro, tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos.
We also enjoyed the unusual pickled carrots that accompanied the chips and salsa--slices of tender-crisp marinated carrots snuggled up against slabs of jalapenos. They were fiery little numbers, but the sweet taste of carrot made eating them a pleasure rather than just a benign form of self-torture.
We chased them down with orchata--a traditional Mexican beverage that Jose Medina compares to the ubiquitous American iced tea. The drink is made of rice, water, sugar, and assorted flavorings, including cinnamon, vanilla, coconut and/or almond, and tastes like a thin rice pudding you can sip through a straw. Sweet, starchy, and altogether refreshing, it's the perfect cure for scorched tongues.
For our dinners, we decided upon chicken enchiladas, chilis rellenos, a shredded beef torta, and, for the stomachache sufferer, a bowl of chicken soup.
The three large enchiladas--soft corn tortillas stuffed with tasty shredded chicken and topped with melted white cheese and sour cream--were good. The meat was tender and the dairy toppings were fresh. However, I was a little disappointed with the deep-red mole poblano sauce, which is typically made with a complex assortment of ingredients like chilis, lard, garlic, anise, coriander, almonds, raisins, cloves, cinnamon, and chocolate. Rather than the symphony of flavors and aromas that a perfectly prepared mole can produce, this one pretty much stuck to one note: hot.
The platter of chilis rellenos was more interesting. Two large poblano peppers had been stuffed with white cheese, dipped in a thin flour batter, and fried until the peppers were tender and the cheese was melted. They were then topped with a moderately sweet red sauce. Because poblanos can vary in flavor from tame to fiery-hot, you always take a chance when ordering them. These peppers were sweet and carried only a hint of heat, and the flavors of the poblanos, cheese, and red sauce blended agreeably.
We also fared well with our choice of the shredded beef torta, a sandwich that can be thought of as burrito filling placed between pieces of round flatbread rather than inside a rolled flour tortilla. The beef was mild and tender, and topped with avocados, tomatoes, and shredded lettuce. The torta was so large that we had to slice it into wedges, like a pie, before we could eat it.
The wading-pool-sized bowl of chicken soup was mostly broth and mild to a fault. ("A chicken ran through the pan and they called it soup!" would have been my mother's analysis.)
For dessert, we ordered flan, flan with eggnog, and pie de queso con fresa (cheesecake with strawberry topping). Gerardo's flan--Mexico's version of egg custard--had a pleasant vanilla scent, although the texture was a bit tough. We were hard-pressed to see a difference between the plain flan and the eggnog flan, beyond the $1.20 surcharge for the latter. Still, the cold, smooth, sweet dessert provided a soothing ending to our meal. The cheesecake, from an outside vendor, was unremarkable.
We tried a licuado de manzana--an apple milkshake--too. It was thin, creamy, and full of tiny specks of apple that reinforced its fruity punch. The milkshakes can also be made with peaches, bananas, papayas, pineapples, or strawberries, and can be enjoyed with a meal or as a dessert.
Throughout the meal, our server was patient, friendly, and genuinely interested in pleasing us. My daughters got a thrill out of being called "senorita" and from overhearing snippets of conversations in the Spanish they are learning in school. Because business was a little slow during this visit, it didn't take the kids long to feel right at home and start asking the staff questions about the food, customs, and the All Souls' altar, which the staff seemed happy to answer.
Because there was so much more on the menu I wanted to try, I returned solo during a weekday lunch hour. This time, the joint was jumping with folks from the nearby hospitals and universities, all stoking up on enormous portions of Gerardo's substantial food.
I was eager to sample what Mi Pueblo's owners claim are "the biggest burritos in town" and picked the burrito carne asada--a soft flour tortilla wrapped around savory diced skirt steak (a slightly tough but flavorful cut of meat, similar to flank steak), refried beans, tomatoes, sour cream, and cilantro. The steak bits were plentiful, still warm, and well seasoned, combining agreeably with the cold sour cream and pungent cilantro. As for the size, I'll just say I ate my fill and took the rest home, where it served as supper.
A side of guacamole--perfectly ripened avocados mashed with lemon juice and cilantro and dotted with diced tomatoes--was likewise large: There was more than a cup of the tangy mixture. I also tried an order of refried beans, and I was glad I did. Instead of the bland, pale paste we had been served on the previous visit, these beans were beefy-tasting, thick, and mahogany-red. I don't know what made the difference, but whatever it was, I hope the kitchen keeps it up.
Again, service was courteous and friendly. When I complimented my waiter on the food, he beamed with pride. Moreover, when he realized, as I paid my bill, that he had never brought me a dish of pickled carrots, he ran back to the kitchen and packed me a container to go.
So this year, when Cleveland skies turn leaden and dirty snow piles up on the curbs, I'll know what to do for a winter getaway. There will be no bags to pack and no tickets to buy. Instead, I'll head over to Mi Pueblo and let its spicy tastes, sights, and sounds transport me to Mexico.
11611 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, 216-791- 8226. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Enchiladas de mole poblano con pollo$8.95
Chilis rellenos $7.95
Shredded beef torta $2.50
Orchata (large) $1.19
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