So, here we are again, back at the nagging question of authenticity. Throughout my five years in Boston, I’ve heard the complaint on more than one occasion: “There just isn’t any authentic Mexican food in this city!” More often than not, my California upbringing has led me to agree. But then I got to thinking: What kind of tragic insult is this to the world of Mexican food? Even in the outermost regions of upper Minnesota-I’m guessing-folks don’t go around with funny accents talking about the lack of decent authentic Italian food, do they? Even those poor Minnesotans comprehend that, small as it may be, Italy is an expansive land, and that cuisines from the northern corners of the country may not closely resemble those from the southern regions, even if overlapping ingredients are used. Should Mexico be treated differently because it’s not part of the EU? I’m not convinced.
What I think Bostonians mean when they qualify Mexican food with “authentic” comes down to a simple case of tacos and burritos. Compared to places like San Francisco’s Mission District, most of San Diego and even sections of Portland, OR, people here seem distraught about there not being more places to chow down on cheap, satisfying, greasy, road stand Mexican grub. First off, I’d probably beg to differ. Little can compare to the vast stretch of taquerias lining 16th St. in the Mission, but there are local places like El Pelon Taqueria (96 Peterborough St., Boston) and Taqueria La Mexicana (247 Washington St., Somerville) that do a fantastic job at quenching the craving for this simple, partially Southwestern version of Mexican food. More importantly, though, I think people are quick to overlook that there’s more to Mexican cuisine than streamed flour tortillas with cheese and meat from metal serving bins. I’d like to remind everyone of spots like Zócalo Cocina Mexicana in Arlington, where the food outshines the often dubious freshness standards of even the best road stand taquerias, and where the atmosphere is refreshingly date-appropriate.
There are more examples of this fancier brand of Mexican fare than appear on the surface, but I’m biased toward Zócalo for a couple of reasons. First, the room here is universally appealing; it’s a cozy neighborhood joint, brightly painted, with a diverse clientele, a cheerful and attentive staff, and a sensible layout for anything from a romantic third date to a small family reunion. But I also like Zócalo because it’s a perfect introduction to this beyond-burrito brand of Mexican cuisine; it’s not as fussy and expensive as its loosely-related cousin, Ole Mexican Grille, in Inman Square (prior to February of this year, Zócalo was also called Ole, but that’s a complicated and boring story), and it strikes a keen balance between dishes you’ve heard of and those you probably haven’t.
Arlington is a “dry” city-how these still exist, I will never understand!-but no trip to Zócalo is complete without a pitcher of sangria ($15)-one of the best versions I’ve come across. Whereas some places serve their sangria slightly on the grape Kool-Aid tip, Zócalo’s is spicier and more alcoholic, and served with fragrant cinnamon sticks for stirring and gnawing. Drinks are served with a basket of surprisingly fresh and hearty tortilla chips and a chunky, passable salsa.
On a mid-week visit, we started with the tostada de nopales ($5.95), three small crispy corn tortillas topped with marinated cactus, añejo cheese (a mild white cheese), salsa verde and a mild chipotle sauce. My experience with cactus is somewhat limited, but I’ll have to submit to this being an acquired taste, based on the strips at Zócalo, which were slimy and heavily brined. Maybe I’m just not a fan of cactus, but next time I’ll go with the tinga poblana ($5.95), tortillas topped with braised shredded pork, or the guacamole en molcajete ($8.50), which is a heaping mound of the stuff prepared with spices fresh from a mortar and pestle in the back of the room.
I’ve scanned lots of Mexican food menus, but Zócalo features that first fully devoted special chiles rellenos menu I can recall. The prospect of chiles rellenos de pollo mole ($13.95)-batter-fried poblano peppers stuffed with chicken, mole and queso fresco-was too tempting to pass up, and indeed, it was the highlight of the evening. Amateur chiles rellenos can arrive either too eggy or revoltingly greasy, but the ones at Zócalo were expertly fried, with a light, thin batter that promoted flavors from the roasted chiles to a prominent role. But the real star of the plate was the bed of mole sauce supporting the chiles-a deep velvety brown pool that had all the subtleties of mild chocolate tones and a peppery spice without any confusing bitter elements. Cuisine aside, this is simply one of the best sauces I’ve tasted, period.
Zócalo’s mole also appears on list of gourmet enchiladas, but we went with a version featuring red bliss potatoes and a rich salsa verde ($10.25) to keep things fair. Not surprisingly, the enchiladas at Zócalo are fresher and more exotic than those found in countless Mexicali chains, but they were hardly gush-worthy with the plate of chiles rellenos at our disposal. I overheard the man at the table next to ours mouth a similar complaint with respect to his pollo pibil burrito with oranges and tomatoes ($8.25); it was good, he said, but his wife’s chiles were the main attraction.
Arlington may be a bit far out there for the casual diner, but I hope that Zócalo’s close-in location on Broadway will make it a more attractive dining option for those seeking something off the beaten path in the Cambridge and Somerville area. Zócalo isn’t hurting for business-they were packed on a Wednesday-but I imagine even more diners wanting an antidote to the shrill “no authentic Mexican food” banshee wail. I may take issue with the branding of authenticity, but Zócalo does the traditions of Oaxaca and Veracruz proud, leaving standard taco-stuffing to the Tijuana purists.