South of the Border, South Beach Style
Restaurant reviewers find our prey many ways, most of them as unexciting as the way African big-game "hunters" find theirs by using savvy local guides rather than doing any real hunting themselves. But occasionally one does stumble out of some metaphorical mist and find oneself, accidentally, in Brigadoon. (For foodies who are not also fans of schlocky old Broadway musicals: Brigadoon was a secret Scottish village that materialized in the real world only once every 100 years, only to be stumbled across by a group of lost tourists, primarily lyric tenors.)
Siembra was such a discovery. While cruising northern SoBe one day with a friend, we took a wrong right turn onto the short eastern dead-end spur of 26th Street between Indian Creek and the ocean. One-half of a very poorly executed K-turn later, the car was accidentally positioned in a slanted parking space, facing an intriguingly hole-in-the-wall eatery we'd never heard of.
Since three minutes were on the parking meter, we checked out the menu and discovered traditional Mexican items with appealingly nouvelle touches. Though no dish suggested the complex depth found in Mexican cuisine authority Diana Kennedy's regional recipes, the genre is rare enough in SoBe to suggest that an additional hour on the meter might be a heckuva good idea. It was. In fact the sinful apple crêpe dessert, drizzled with dulce de leche, alone would be reason enough to seek out Siembra with dining companions. (The sweet thing is a monster.)
Siembra's cozy dark red and ochre décor, and the warm welcome from the friendly mixed-culture management (none Mexican; the owners just visit Mexico a lot, and love the food) gave us a good feeling from the get-go. An appetizer of tostones con caviar immediately seconded that emotion. True, the "black caviar" topping the fried plantains was just lumpfish roe, not true sturgeon caviar. And the crema underneath the roe was simply sour cream, not Mexico's jocoqui (which is more like French crme frache). Still, the combination was very tasty atop these particular tostones elegantly thin, ultracrisp wafers that resembled mini-latkes; unlike the formidable plantain disks average local Latin eateries serve, they required only a fork to cut rather than a chain saw.
Sopa de tortilla was less impressive. There are almost as many variations on tortilla soup as there are cooks in Mexico, but rich chicken broth should be the base on which the soup is built, not tomato (which is a customary but not compulsory addition; not infrequently, red chilies give the soup its pink color). Nothing but bland tomato purée was discernable in Siembra's soup. Additionally, though the garnishes of fried tortilla strips and sour cream were fine, the absence of avocado not a required ingredient but always a welcome one was disappointing.
A lechón asado entrée came crowned with a rolled chicharrón cone that was huge yet so succulently crackling-crisp that I resented sharing it. The pork meat itself had a pleasantly complex taste, owing to its bitter orange-garlic-herb marinade, but was quite dry. Two accompaniments, white rice and wonderfully garlicky boiled yuca, were good. A third listed side, black beans, was missing.
Tacos al pastor had no such shortcomings. Whole eateries in Mexico are devoted, like Greek souvlaki spots, to this one succulent street specialty: soft tortillas filled with pork that's been marinated in citrus and numerous chilies and spices, and then flame-cooked with pineapple. When the fruit is canned, as it often is in Mexican-American eateries, this dish is an even more annoying novelty act than pineapple pizza. But one bite of Siembra's tacos, filled with zesty meat balanced by grilled fresh fruit chunks, brought back a recent trip to Puerto Costa Maya (on the Yucatán Peninsula) the deliriously colored dining pavilion by the beach; the roadside vendors outside the port, selling bags of impossibly sweet local pineapple spiked with hot chili; all of it just like food from far-flung places is supposed to do.
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