Decor Is for Gringos

Real Mexican is all about the food, and Villa y Zapata delivers.

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Villa y Zapata 8505 Madison Avenue 216-961-4369; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday
Dishes like the guacamole Mexicano, red salsa, and - taquitos are all the decoration you need.
Dishes like the guacamole Mexicano, red salsa, and taquitos are all the decoration you need.
Some dining rooms delight with their decor, others captivate with spectacular views, and a few entrance with exotic entertainments. None of those places is Villa y Zapata.

In fact, the small Mexican family restaurant on the city's West Side could scarcely be less fancy. The red, white, and green stripes painted on the bunkerlike exterior have made the building something of a local landmark, but the interior decor -- such as it is -- seems to begin and end with three sombreros, one serape, and a "Fiesta" banner. Not only is there no view, but we don't even recall seeing a window. And unless you count the TV hanging over the tiny, eight-seat bar, the entertainment factor is nil.

The lunar surface has nothing on the pockmarked rear parking lot; stepping through the back door requires a leap of faith. And once inside, your welcome may seem a bit reserved and the staffers tentative and shy. And yet, there are plenty of good reasons to drop by this unpretentious little way station -- reasons with names like sopes, gisado de puerco, and cajeta, to point out a few.

Chef-owner Joel Bolanos, a native of Puebla, Mexico, and his partner Lucrecia Santiago took over the restaurant a little more than a year ago, and today -- in a region overrun with indistinguishable cantinas offering mediocre Tex-Mex fare -- their menu of authentic Mexican food shines like a silver streak. Bolanos' culinary repertoire speaks clearly in the language of his native land and abounds in such classic dishes as chicken in mole poblano, grilled red snapper, and camarones a la Mexicana, a dish of sautéed shrimp and a garden's worth of veggies, smothered in red sauce and ladled onto a bed of perfect rice. (Children and other nonadventurous souls can make do with the short list of more commonplace fare, such as nachos, burritos, enchiladas, and tacos.)

Prices are low, with most entrées pegged at less than $13; portions are large enough to share around the table (or take home for tomorrow's lunch); and flavors, by and large, are fresh, wholesome, and reasonably complex, but rarely hot.

No, not everything is a knockout; but there were enough unusual and good-tasting dishes to make us forget about the low points. The good news begins with the kitchen's dark, reddish-brown salsa, a smooth and tangy blend with hints of cilantro and just a tickle of jalapeño. How good was it? Not only did it possess the power to turn the average tortilla chips into a snacker's passion, it seems likely it could have made the four-page menu taste good too. And as for the fresh, coarsely mashed guacamole (available as a small side dish or as a whopper of an app), its clean, well-balanced flavors and toppings of chopped cilantro, onion, and tomato made it an instant favorite around our table; next time, we'll order it "Mexicano" style, with a halo of sliced jalapeños, for a little extra thrill.

After all, jalapeños were one of the ingredients that made the flamiado sizzle. The amply apportioned starter of finely ground, pleasantly tingly chorizo, smothered beneath a thick layer of melted Muenster and Monterey Jack cheeses, and neatly topped with emerald rings of jalapeño, was great as a chip dip, but just as good scooped up with a spoon.

Mexican cooking's reliance on masa (cornmeal dough) -- for tacos, tamales, quesadillas, and the like -- goes all the way back to the Aztecs and Mayans. And as we dug into a trio of rustic little sopes (thick, moist disks of masa with raised edges, topped with refried beans, shredded beef, lettuce, and shredded cheese), we could have sworn we heard the footfalls of Quetzalcoatl, bringing in the maize.

On a Saturday-night visit, we followed the sopes with an equally rustic platter of gisado de puerco -- lean, tender cubes of pork, slowly simmered in a slightly tart green sauce, hinting of tomatillos and cilantro. Yes, the pork was slightly dry, but slathered in the brightly flavored sauce, it was still delicious.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for another night's chicken mole. Three big, boneless slabs of roasted breast meat were tender, but almost chokingly dry; and the delicately nuanced mole poblano (Puebla's famous chile-and-bitter chocolate sauce) that coated them couldn't make them go down any easier.

Red snapper "Veracrusano," topped with small, fresh-tasting shrimp, was a mixed bag, too; while the smallish snapper filet seemed a little rubbery, and its attached skin lent it a fishy taste, the palate-pleasing red sauce that surrounded it (a blend of tomato, onion, and jalapeños) was a winner. Accompanied by a lettuce-and-onion salad inside a crisp tortilla "bowl," and a mound of moist, veggie-studded rice, it was a dish that could easily be improved with just a little tweaking.

There were plenty of other out-of-the-mainstream enticements on Bolanos' menu that will have to wait for another day -- beef with red sauce, cactus, tomatoes, and potatoes; pork chops marinated in pineapple juice and white wine, with red sauce; and chicken in tequilla sauce, with sour cream, green peppers, onion, tomato, and jalapeños. Instead, we succumbed to the draw of an old standby -- chiles rellenos -- as our final main dish; and, wow, are we glad we did!

There must have been nearly a pound of mild melted Muenster stuffed inside that pair of large, dark green poblanos. Sort of the tricksters of the chile world, poblanos can score anywhere from mild to hot on the Scoville heat index; ours were near the golden mean, aromatic with dark, earthy flavor notes, goosed by a contrapuntal pinch of heat. The properly thin egg-wash "breading" and a swoosh of piquant red sauce added even more dimension to the chorus of simple flavors; and sides of smoky, smooth refried beans, more of the veggie-studded rice, and warm flour tortillas made ideal media for soaking up every last drop. In fact, all other chiles rellenos platters can consider themselves on notice: Henceforth, this is the standard against which they will be measured.

To drink, the bar stocks a small but worthy collection of high-end tequilas and an assortment of domestic and imported bottled cervezas ($2.50), including Tecate, Pacifico, and, our current fave, Negra Modelo, a dark, creamy Mexican beer with hints of chocolate, caramel, and plum.

For dessert, skip the watery flan and the non-fried "fried ice cream." But if you haven't drained your bottle of Negra Modelo by the time sweet endings roll around, hold on to a swig or two. We discovered it makes a remarkable companion to the kitchen's sweet cajeta, a soft dulce-de-leche-like caramel, rich as butter and yielding enough to be eaten with a spoon.

So, sure, the place is plain, and the amenities are basic. No musicians will serenade you, no clowns will craft balloon animals, and you probably won't see a single person dancing. Then again, when the food on the table is this good, it's the only amusement a restaurant lover needs.

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