We are apt to think of "real" Mexican restaurants as those rickety, rustic, romantically recalled taquerias frequented during adventurous excursions south of the border. When a modern, well-designed dining establishment such as Talavera Cocina Mexicana opens and serves fare defined as much by mindful fuss as heartfelt passion, we tend to dismiss it as less than authentic. We act as if there were no such places in Mexico — as if the professional class in that country congregates only at greasy spoons over tongue tacos dripping with lard. Now, there's a lot to be said for tongue tacos dripping with lard, but I have likewise enjoyed meals in Mexico at restaurants that were just as stylish as Talavera. Refinement is not necessarily a bad thing. To put it another way: Talavera is to Mexican street food what Salma Hayek is to a Mexican street person.
Take the two salsas that jump-start meals: one red, one green, both puréed to the sort of seamlessly smooth consistency that would satisfy the most stringent French chef. There are those (including me) who generally prefer salsa rough and chunky, but you really can't beat the smoky flavor of the milder tomato-guajillo dip or the gutsy-hot tomatillo-habanero one. The blue and white corn chips, on the other hand, demonstrate why sometimes-modern improvements are not improvements at all; they have that dull, flat-flavored greaselessness that results from being baked rather than fried.
Owners Lalo Durazo and Martin Moreno and partner/executive chef Oscar del Rivero might reconsider the chips. But they know more about Mexican food and running restaurants than I do; they are the team that operates Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill, and they come from Mexico City. Excepting those chips, these guys do just about everything right, beginning with the sexed-up Mexican décor: Warm orange walls are adorned with the famous blue/white Talavera plates from Puebla, Mexico (blue was used because it was the rarest of pigments and thus most exclusive). Other pieces of that 16th-century form of pottery are spotted about the space, and a matching three-piece mural occupies the back wall with the same blue/white pattern. Soft, leathery beige booths are exceedingly comfy, and the noise level produced by consistently sizable crowds is loud enough to suggest liveliness but not so cacophonous as to inhibit conversation. A smaller, similarly decorated backroom contains a few tables for larger parties.
Talavera Cocina Mexicana
2299 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-444-2955; talaveraspot.com. Lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Between the two dining rooms is an open kitchen. Across from that, small oil portraits of famous Mexicans line up above a fully stocked bar that pours stiff, classic margaritas for a reasonable $8; the bartender concocts a nightly "creative" margarita special as well. The bar also boasts a half-dozen Mexican bottled beers, and wine consultant Barry Alberts has compiled a short, eclectic list of labels almost exclusively from Argentina, Chile, California, and Spain. Most bottles cost $18 to $34; by-the-glass selections are $7 or $8.
Affordable alcoholic beverages are another sign of customer-friendly management — as is serving carafes of pristine water filtered through a sophisticated in-house system without charging, like other places do. The staff makes you want to cheer the place on too. Our waiter seemed so sincere in his allegiance to the food that his buoyancy never seemed cloying. The manager also wore a perpetual smile while working the room with an eagle eye and an eager hand to help. Even the hostess was pitch-perfect when handling a minor seating problem that arose when we arrived early for our reservation. Service here soars.
Some dishes on this distinctive menu work better than others, but every plate of food came freshly cooked. Guacamole, like the salsas, is creamily puréed, and the ripe avocado flavor is pinched with lime that cuts against the white crumbles of Oaxacan cheese on top. Fried pork rinds are a nice crunchy touch, partnered alongside fresh, soft rounds of flour tortillas the size of coasters.
The Jaguar proprietors have included a couple of ceviches on Talavera's menu. A Yucatecan-style snapper, served on a tostada shell smeared with thin avocado purée, boasted a clean citrus-cilantro flavor and a slight habanero bite (for another clean citrus-cilantro treat, try the homemade lemonade infused with that herb).
Crab enchiladas brought shreds of the shellfish rolled into three fresh corn tortillas served beneath mildly piquant, brick-red guajillo chili sauce sprinkled with goat cheese crumbles. It wasn't bad, but we preferred tacos de Chilorio, a specialty of Sinaloa that brought six soft flour tortillas plumply filled with shreds of roast pork seasoned with cumin and coriander, spiced with ancho and guajillo chilies, and highlighted with a dash of vinegar. We likewise relished a Oaxacan cheese-stuffed Poblano chile relleno: a large jade-colored pepper puffily coated in egg-white batter, fried, bathed in mild tomato sauce, and served with freshly grilled zucchini circles atop white rice flecked with peas, corn kernels, and carrot chunks.
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The specialty of the house is the "huarache grill," a corn masa cake forged into the namesake sandal shape, lightly fried, and here topped with black bean purée, lettuce, goat cheese, salsa verde, and choice of grilled meat or fish a la talla marinated in a guajillo chili powder rub. We sampled on top the fish of the day, a pristine slab of mahi-mahi that sparkled with flavor and proved utterly delectable melded with the other ingredients.
We tried two of Talavera's three moles, mostly because we weren't satisfied with the first one, a pipian verde from Puebla. This particular mole comes with choice of chicken or beef tenderloin; we chose the latter, a pair of inch-thick, supertender disks of filet. The taste of the mildly flavored steak was stronger than that of the mole, despite the latter boasting cumin, cilantro, garlic, and serrano chili. We couldn't detect any of that in what was otherwise a pleasant if toothless squash sauce (there is such a thing as being too refined). The plate also lacked promised radishes and watercress. The mole de Veracruz retaliated on a return visit with a potently sweet flavor derived from fruits, nuts, and more than a hint of chocolate and spice. It came delicately draped upon a moist chicken breast sparsely breaded with buttery crumbs. The Oaxacan mole brings braised short ribs and the perkiest piquancy of the trio.
Almost everything on the menu is $20 or less. Soups are offered by the cup, salads by the half-portion. Weekday lunches bring more than a dozen selections, including enchiladas, huaraches, chiles rellenos, salads, and tortas — everything priced at $12. All of which reminds us to remind you: Call for reservations, because Talavera is so busy that upon entering, you are apt to pause for a second to wonder if it's Cinco de Mayo.
More folks would likely try "corn cake with tres leches" (pastel de maiz) if it were called corn soufflé. After all, it's as soft, warm, and melt-in-the-mouth luscious as that puffy dessert and is crazy-delicious in its cinnamon-and-rum-spiked pool of cream sauce (with condensed and evaporated milk worked in and spiced, caramelized walnuts on top). Authentic? Who cares? Don't miss it. We mean not just the corn cake, but Talavera too.