MY FRIEND, the legendary El Camote, strode with weary portent to the dark corner table where I sat, the horizon of his wide sombrero pulled low on his brow. Faint orange lamps glowed like sleepy torches dotting a fortress wall amid Mextiza's dense shelves of liquor. The busted shanks of his boots creaked as he settled into his chair, smoothing his heavy woolen duster. A young couple seated next to us paid him no heed as they spoon-fed tender beans to a baby with a shock of sable hair.
"All the way or not at all?" I asked, perusing the long list of unfamiliar Mexican specialties. This was rhetorical. Every meal with El Camote ended with great wakes of piled china and variegated skylines of bottles on our table as the ticket grew to the floor, the giddy staff watching their gratuity swell.
"Let's start with that $7 guacamole, and work through the lunch items 'til supper," he said, his lips hidden behind the great coat brush of his storyteller's mustache. He ordered at length from a crippling inventory of tequilas, and then rattled off a litany of dishes.
The guacamole arrived quickly, a generous cupful of near-pureed green dip. Piled next to it and dusted with dried cotija cheese were hefty stacks of house-fried tortilla chips. Camote drew a bead on it.
"That's a $6 guacamole and there's no two ways about it."
He scooped up a great dollop and chewed it thoughtfully. "It's damn good, don't get me wrong. But I like a variety of textures, and it seems like they're jackin' the tab with sweat."
"I didn't know refinement was such a rarefied ingredient these days," I said, admiring the sweet ghosts of jalapeño and cilantro that had been teased into the mixture.
He stooped to retrieve a paper airplane that a young chavo had landed at our feet, and flew it back to him with a wink.
A trio of handsome sandwiches on golden, brioche-like rolls was whispered to our table, each about the size of a 12 wide shoe. One was filled with a generous, tender scaloppine of Milanese-style fried tongue, completed with a quietly spicy habanero mayonnaise, chilled iceberg, and plump wedges of perfectly ripe avocado. Its companion, a fried rockfish filet, was a treasure to behold: It gave fish to the fish lover, flesh to the flesh lover, and sweetened it all with a cool green jalapeño aioli. Iceberg lettuce, often an afterthought, lent these sandwiches quench and texture. No such polite parlor banter was offered by the torta ahogada—a formidable mountain of braised, shredded beef, its bread drowned in light red chile sauce and covered with fiery raw onions.
Camote stepped outside for his mid-prandial tobacco, and more plates arrived. Zuisas were a mild trio of petite chicken and cheese enchiladas, artfully drizzled with a green chile-tomatillo sauce and cream, and strewn with paper coins of marinated radish. The tender pollo rostizado, a rotisserie chicken quarter butchered to include the spine's oyster, was served under a heaping mat of wilted onions and caramelized pineapple, with a cold potato salad. Doraditas, explosively flavorful crisp corn shells bursting with juicy chorizo and potato, reinvigorated my senses after these safe plays.
My returning companion paused to assess the table of a young Latin patron, heavy with scholarly books and draft beer, and soon after, a threesome of ridiculously fat little tacos callejeros was set before Camote. He declared the tender, stringy chicharrón the finest use of pork rind outside of keeping a pig from leaking, and he deemed the quivering, custardy menudencia the finest tripe in town.
The diffuse sun grew weak behind the even gray clouds. A swarthy businessman with severely parted hair ordered the cabrito; upon seeing the groaning plate, heaped with an abundance of shredded crisp goat, roasted potatoes, and a personal sea of frijoles, Camote did the same. He then signaled for the lechon yucateco, another feast of moist rotisserie pig, showcasing an honest variety of succulent loin, lacquered skin, and gristly bits for mawing. His appetite flagging, he "saved some for hash" and drilled room for dessert into his stomach with a mezcal.
Across the room, a dapper, balding abuelo finished a plate of chocolate empanadas, hot from the fryer and topped with airy mint ice cream. Camote went with that and the crumbly pineapple tart, topped with refreshing citrus wedges. The little old man smiled approvingly, took his hat, and departed. We were the only two left in the quiet restaurant.
"Well," Camote said, "that was an education."
The surprisingly modest bill arrived, and we paid generously and strode into the night, now sturdy against time.
All lunches $8.50, seven days a week. Dinner entrées average $15. Noise: pleasant, conversational. Service: very good.-Chris Onstad