Restaurant Reviews

Yucatecan Yearnings

Some people equate the Yucatán with Cancún or Cozumel, with lying on quiet white-sand beaches by day, guzzling margaritas in boisterous clubs at night. Mention the Yucatán to me, and all I think of is the town of Ticul (pronounced "tee-cool"), home of Gloria Del Socorro's pollo pibil. Well all right, that's a slight exaggeration -- sometimes her panuchos also come to mind. Gloria has, in fact, cooked the best Mexican food I've ever had, but what makes her meals so memorable has as much to do with the slow and loving manner in which she prepares and presents them as with her culinary skills.

Mario and Karina Manzanero, who two years ago opened the Burrito Grill Café on NE 125th Street, came to Miami via the Yucatecan capital of Mérida, about a two-hour drive from Ticul. The food they serve is not as good as Gloria's, but they provide the same sort of personal care that makes you feel as though you're a special guest at their house. Karina cooks (she's been doing so since age fourteen), Mario waits tables and manages things, and one of their four sons, along with a nephew, helps out in the back kitchen.

It is a small, quaint, and immaculate café with obligatory sombreros and ponchos hanging on the walls and Mexican music festively serenading in the background. Five tall, tiled tables, each surrounded by four stools, line up against the storefront windows; more stools are set at a long counter that runs parallel to the tables. Behind the counter you can watch Karina craft the various tortilla-based dishes and cook them to order. You can also observe her meticulously scraping the griddle and wiping the counters after each dish is finished, as if she were cooking at home; the stainless-steel equipment is as shiny as a newly pressed peso.

The food is clean as well, a simple blend of fresh ingredients, savory seasonings, and unfussy flavors. The only thing lacking is lard -- like most Mexican restaurants in the States, Burrito Grill puts its clientele's health and diet concerns above tradition and substitutes corn oil. Understandable, but attempting to re-create the Yucatán's lusciously lardacious fare without rendered pork fat is like trying to come up with great oven-roasted French fries.

Pibil is a Yucatecan cooking method wherein the meat gets marinaded in sour orange juice and achiote seasoning paste (recado); wrapped in banana leaf with chilies, tomato, and onion; cooked in a barbecue pit; and served with pickled red onions. Gloria didn't actually cook her pollo pibil in a pit. Nor does Karina do so with her conchinita pibil, but she does oven-roast the pork slowly for eight hours. The resultant morsels of succulent meat can be sampled atop three corn tortillas (tacos de conchinita pibil), or mixed with Mexican rice, soft red beans, and chopped red onion in a large, griddled flour tortilla (burrito Maya). These are the most fetching items on the abbreviated menu, at least in terms of quenching Yucatecan yearnings.

The nine other entrées encompass taqueríalike snacks such as quesadillas, tostadas, tamales, and a grand burrito -- same as burrito Maya but with chicken or steak in place of pork. Dinners come with rice or beans or both, and all but one (a marinated strip steak) cost less than seven dollars. That's a bargain. So is the single special served each day, which might be enchiladas salsa verde, or whole fried fish, or the Mayan "tikinchi" specialty of red snapper prepared pibil-style in banana leaf. More often than not the special here is the most noteworthy dish. Karina says she occasionally prepares my beloved panuchos, which are crisp little tortillas with black beans, chicken, lettuce, jalapeños, and pickled red onions, but I haven't lucked into them yet.

The Manzaneros are in the process of expanding the menu. I hope they add the tikinchi, panuchos, and a couple of other regional specialties to spice up their generic selections. My only other suggestion would be to cut down on the lime juice in the guacamole -- I needed to gulp a cold Negra Modelo beer to rinse away the sour taste (Dos Equis, Corona, and a couple of wines also are available). Had another beer after dinner, this time because I felt compelled to linger awhile. I find that the more gracious the hosts, the more awkward it is for me to eat and run.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein

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