Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Painted Burro: Mouth-Watering Mexican Cuisine (and Meatloaf!)

I have often said that the best chefs can get me to enjoy dishes that I usually dislike. Meatloaf is one of those dishes that has never thrilled me. Too many times I have found meatloaf to be too dry, too much breading, too bland, etc. But Chef-owner Joe Cassinelli has recently changed my mind with his Yucatan Meatloaf at The Painted Burro, his new Mexican restaurant in Davis Square, Somerville.

Chef Cassinelli is also the owner of Pizzeria Posto, which is located in Davis Square too. I have long been a big fan of Posto so was excited to check out The Painted Burro. I recently had the opportunity, as a media guest, to visit the Burro on two occasions, on consecutive Thursday evenings, in part to assess the impact of their new soundproofing efforts.

The restaurant, which occupies the spot of the former Gargoyles, was very busy on both nights, and on the first Thursday, there was even a one hour wait for seating at 8pm. It is a medium-sized restaurant, with a long bar at the front. It is a very open room, much more than it once had been as Gargoyles. On that first Thursday, it was quite loud, and seemed as if it contained twice the amount of people as it actually did. You often expect a festive Mexican restaurant and bar to be noisy, but this seemed overboard. Chef Cassinelli understood this issue and took a series of measures to mute the noise.

He consulted New England Soundproofing and initially installed sound paneling under the chairs and tables, though that ended up not helping much. After further consultation, they installed sound proofing panels, which were expensive, on the ceiling and walls. Some of those panels will eventually be painted with murals by local artist Raul Gonzalez, who also painted an existing mural at the Burro. So, on the second Thursday, after this additional sound proofing was completed, there was a noticeable difference in the noise level. It will never be a quiet restaurant, but the noise is at a much more manageable level, enabling conversation with the guests at your table. The panels are very unobtrusive, and blend well into the decor, and will blend even more once murals are painted on some of them.

One of the strengths of the Burro is their drinks program, to which they have obviously invested plenty of effort. Tequila and Mezcal occupy a significant role. They stock approximately 12 Mezcals and 100 Tequilas, including 30+ Blanco, 30+ Reposado, 20+ Anejo and 15 Seleccion Especial tequilas. Each selection has 3 prices, the first for a shot, the second for a tasting and the third for its inclusion in the House Margarita. They also have 6 tasting flights, allowing you to easily compare similar Tequilas. Margaritas ($8-$10) includes flavor choices such as Hibiscus, Mango, Cucumber, and Strawberry while they have other intriguing cocktails ($7-$12), including white and red Sangria.

Margaritas are served in a misshapen old-fashioned-type glass rather than the usual margarita glass. The Margarita de la Casa ($8) is made with Agavales Blanco, Combier and lime juice and had a very pleasant and balanced flavor. The Margarita Royale ($16) is made with Kah Organic Blanco, Damiana liquer (which allegedly has an aphrodisiacal effect) and lime juice. It had a more unique flavor, a bit more herbal, and was once again a balanced and tasty cocktail. The El Jefe ($10) is a nice Mezcal cocktail made with orange bitters and homemade grenadine. This had a bit of a smoky flavor with citrus notes and hints of sweetness. The Burro Colada ($11) is a frozen cocktail made with Ron Virgin, Cream of Coconut and Cayenne Pineapple Juice. The addition of the cayenne elevated this cocktail, providing a delicious spicy kick on the finish, balancing out the initial chill. A great variation on the traditional pina colada.

The bar also stocks over 20 beers ($5-$15), about half of them hailing from Mexico, available in Draft, Tin, Ballenas and Bottles. Five of their beers are from New England, including the Slumbrew Happy Sol made by the Somerville Brewing Company. The wine list is small, with only 11 choices, all available by the glass or bottle, and most reasonably priced from $24-$32 per bottle. You'll find an Argentina Malbec, a Spanish Tempranillo, California Pinot Noir and two wines from Mexico. They carry the 2009 L.A. Cetto Chenin Blanc ($24) and 2006 L.A. Cetto Private Reserve Nebbiolo ($52). I did not try either of these wines but am going to do so on my next visit. It is very rare to find a Mexican wine locally so it is very cool to know the Burro carries two.

The food menu is basically divided into Appetizers (about 12 choices for $5-$14), Tacos (about 7 choices for $5-$8), Entrees (about 9 choices for $11-$21), and Sides (5 choices for $3-$5). Some of the tacos seem a bit pricier than found at other Mexican restaurants, especially considering how reasonably priced are the Entrees. For example, the Short Rib Barbacoa taco is $8 and if you ordered three, which would likely constitute an entree, it would cost $24, which would make it the most expensive Entree on the menu. In their favor, the tacos are high quality, many using seasonal ingredients, and I will discuss their taste more later in this post.

As you peruse the menu, you will be brought chips and salsa. The salsa is mild but with a rich tomato and herb flavor. If you prefer a spicier salsa, I suspect they would find something to please you.

I tasted a number of different Appetizers and in general they were tasty and well made. The Empanadas ($5) are made with local goat meat from Falter Farm in Avon. In addition, they contain tres quesos, and poblano rojas, accompanied by a roasted red pepper & tomato-chipotle salsa. An excellent, crisp empanada with a moist, flavorful interior and a slightly spicy salsa. Don't fear the goat!

The Ceviche Del Mar ($14) is a combination of three ceviches, including Maine Redfish, Shrimp & Snapper. Each ceviche is prepared differently, with items like avocado salsa, lime, scallions, pickled red grapes, and radish, and is accompanied with tortilla fritas. Fresh citrus flavors, creamy avocado and plenty of tender seafood. A nice and refreshing choice.

Another refreshing choice is the "Chingon" Cucumbers ($5), which are small pieces of cucumber with watermelon radish, pickled grapes, cilantro, lemon, chile, and sea salt. The cucumbers pieces have a nice crispness to them, and a mild, citrus taste. They probably could use a bit more chile, to add more heat, though not everyone might like them spicier.

One of my favorite Appetizers was the Fundido with spicy house made Chorizo ($12), which you can also get with just Cheese & Scallions ($9) or Roasted Veggies ($11). Made with Oaxaca, Chihuahua and Manchego cheeses, the fundido comes with soft corn tortillas so you can make your own cheese and chorizo tacos. Great blend of flavors from all those types of melted cheese combine with plenty of meaty chorizo and a light spicy kick. You'll be fighting over the last bits of melted cheese & chorizo in the plate.

The "Cholo" Corn Cob ($7), with roasted garlic mayo, cotija cheese, and cayenne, is sure to please as well. Sweet corn, a deliciously creamy coating, and a bit of spice make this an addictive dish.

The Crispy Pork Flautas ($7), made from carnitas, tres quesos, and tomatillo, come with a serrano crema. Crunchy, with tender pork and plenty of cheese. An easy snack to devour with a margarita.

On the first of the two evenings, I decided to order three tacos for my entree, including the Chorizo de la Casa ($5), Pork Cochinita ($6) and Short Rib Barbacoa ($8). The Chorizo would make for a nice breakfast taco, with its farm egg soleado and pappas. The Pork comes with a pineapple and serrano salsa with a spicy citrus achiote and the flavors blended very well. My favorite of the three was the Short Rib, with its red wine-Mexican cola mole, tres quesos, corn & serrano salsa, and cotija cheese. An amazing melange of flavors and textures and I could have easily eaten several more of these. Highly recommended, albeit a bit pricey. Overall, the tacos were all delicious, well made with quality ingredients.

I also had a Side of Oaxaca Cheese Grits ($4), which are made with white corn meal, milk, Oaxaca cheese, roasted poblanos, sauteed white onion, oregano, and Cotija cheese. Quite an interesting and delicious take on grits. Creamy, with enticing cheese flavors, hints of spice and a little crunch from the onions. Cotija cheese is one of my favorite cheeses and I think placing it atop any dish of grits would be a great idea.

These are the Enchiladas ($15-$18), a large plate of 3 corn tortillas stuffed with tres quesos and smothered with house moles and salsas. You can order the Del Paraiso (veggies), Achiote Chicken, or Roasted Pork Cochinata. My dining companion who ordered these was very impressed. Another companion ordered the Street Cart Chicken ($17), a 1/2 Giannone chicken with an achiote-citrus marinade, kale, fried plantain, and tamarind butter. I tasted some of this chicken and it was amazing, with juicy and flavorful meat, and a compelling marinade. It was also quite a large dish, which seems a commonality of the entrees, good-sized portions that also are very reasonably priced. You won't leave hungry.

And the pièce de résistance was the Yucatan Meatloaf ($16), two fried eggs "soleado" on top of spicy ground sirloin loaf stuffed with chorizo, ham, chicharron, green olives and toasted almonds. It is served open faced on thick toast with a red mole sauce. I had heard others rave about this dish, but still I usually would not choose to order meatloaf at a restaurant. This time was different though as I chose to take a chance on Chef Cassinelli's creation. And I have absolutely no regrets.

Another good-sized dish, this concoction would convert any meatloaf hater. It was moist, bursting with interesting flavors, a nice saltiness from the pork, and the almonds added a delightful texture and nuttiness. The mole was very spicy and enhanced the allure of this dish. I would love to see this mole, with its spiciness and umami, used in other dishes as well. I was thoroughly impressed with this meatloaf and highly recommend it.

There are several options for dessert, including homemade popsicles and ice creams (in unique flavors), a Chocolate Espuma and a Tres Leches Cake. The plantain popsicle tasted exactly like a plantain and it worked as a dessert, without being too sweet. Someone else had the Espuma and it looked great, and he seemed to enjoy it immensely. I had the Tres Leches and found it too heavy for my preferences though the house "fluff" atop the cake was amazing. It tasted fresh, and not like some artificial topping. I also tried the Kalani Coconut, a dessert tequila, which is thick and viscous, but not overly sweet and with a strong coconut flavor over the tequila taste. It might be a nice addition over ice cream.

Service was excellent and overall, Chef Cassinelli has created another winning restaurant. An excellent and exciting drinks program, a creative and compelling food menu, and plenty of good-sized and reasonably priced entrees. And a meatloaf that even haters would enjoy. They also serve Brunch, which I will be checking out over the weekend, and I'll report back on that as well.

Addendum (9/20): I have since learned that Executive Chef Danny Bua, Jr. is actually the mastermind behind the superb Yucatan Meatloaf. Chef Bua made a trip to the Yucatan region and was inspired by a similar dish sold by local street vendors. So when he returned home, he created his own version and certainly has created a winner.

The Painted Burro on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

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