Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Alamexo

I finally had a chance to stop into Matthew Lake's new restaurant Alamexo after many weeks of drooling over some of the shots Chef Lake had been putting on Facebook.  I was particularly interested in Alamexo for a few reasons.  First, there has been some mixed reviews from the Salt Lake food blogger world.  Second, I love Mexican cuisine at every level.  And third, I was a rather unabashed fanboy of Zy, the restaurant that Chef Lake previously operated out of the same location.


We started out with the tableside Guacamole.  This was a cool experience, and the Guacamole was good.  We ordered "spicy" and the scale must be adjusted for Utahns because it was not very spicy, but no complaints and the portion was plentiful.  Alamexo also brings out chips and salsa, and while the Guacamole was the star of the show, the warm salsa was one of the best I've had in a long time and would have been a great way to start the meal even without the avocados.


Next we had queso fundido, which is baked queso Chihuahua with rajas, house made chorizo,
cilantro & white onion served with warm corn tortillas.  I really enjoyed this dish and feel like it exemplifies what I liked so much about our meal that night.  The first dip of this dish is instantly familiar to anyone who enjoys warm queso and fresh tortillas, but underneath the familiar there is a complexity that you won't often find in the Mexican cuisine that is offered in Salt Lake (or anywhere else, commonly).


Chef Lake visited our table and talked about a few of the menu items - and we ordered all of them. So, I feel like we got a great cross section of the offerings at Alamexo.

The highlight of the evening for me was a pulled pork enchilada seasoned with avocado leaf, baked in traditional mole poblano, topped with queso fresco, esquites, white onion & toasted sesame seeds.  This was my personal favorite.  I'm usually not a fan of mole poblano, but this one really had two layers of flavor that won me over.  Initially you'll notice the chocolate, anchos and chipotle that are common notes in the dish.  After that, I started picking up new flavors that are decidedly not on the list of ingredients (maybe I've been doing too much whiskey tasting lately...) like coffee and fig.  Regardless of the over analysis, I highly recommend this dish.


We also tried the Pescado Veracruzana - Mahi mahi, shrimp and scallops cooked in salsa Veracruzana made with roasted tomatoes, sweet peppers, olives & capers, topped with crispy plantains.  This was good and would hit the spot if you're in the mood for a mix of seafood, but it was the flamme rouge on the entree list for the night.  Perhaps a bit spicier would have increased my interest?


The Cochinita PiBil tacos were composed of Achiote & bitter orange marinated pork shoulder, cooked in banana leaf, served with habanero pickled escabeche & sweet plantains.  The pork shoulder in these tacos was about as close to perfect as I've tasted.  Chef Lake cooks these over a full day and the result is remarkable.  Don't be afraid of the fact that they are "tacos", this plate compares favorably to the most complex items on the menu.


We tried the Ceviche del Dia - which was shrimp based with a chipotle sauce, pickled onions and mango.


This, paired with an Ensalada con Frutas (Chopped salad of mixed lettuces with roasted fruits, pepitas, queso fresco & bitter orange vinaigrette) made a great meal for someone looking for a lighter option on the menu.


We also drank some drinks with this meal.  For me, a long time Ilegal Mezcal fan, the clear favorite was the Mescal Spicel (Ilegal mescal reposado, preserved orange, citrus & cannella).  Within our group we also sampled the house margarita, Yucatan Smash (Familia Camarena tequila, mezcal, pineapple & cucumber), and the Boca Mojada (Espolón blanco tequila, agave nectar, mango puree).  I visited a bit later and tried a few more margaritas and the Ginger Fizz.  Everything so far has been delicious and repeatable.


Alamexo stocks a decent tequila list for those who like to sip their spirits straight.  My favorites are missing (I'm a Herradura guy), but I appreciate the inclusion of a really good cross section of styles and flavor profiles in the Tequilas that were chosen.  The only blaring redundancy was Vida and Patron in Silver and Anejo.  All of the margaritas are also available virgin for $3, which is a great option for those who want something complementary to the meal but are not partaking in booze.


For dessert we tried the Cálidas plátanos dulces-warm sweet plantains with cajeta & Oaxaca chocolate sauces, sweet & salty peanuts.  I'm sure it wasn't true, but some part of me felt that I was being responsible by having bananas for dessert, especially since I had already enjoyed the complimentary churros that are brought out to finish every meal at Alamexo.


I also got to taste the Tamale de Chocolate and the Tres leches cake.  The tamale was one of the best things I've ever tried for dessert at a Mexican restaurant.  While the tres leches was good, it trends a bit more towards the familiar (albeit a great execution on a familiar dessert).  If you're on the fence for a final course, go for the chocolate.


The only real critique I've heard of Alamexo is the price - prices on the dinner menu range from $18 to $23 for entrees with a single item at $28 (the strip steak).  There was also a fair amount of chatter about Zy being pricey when it occupied this space.  In defense of both restaurants, they compare VERY favorably both in absolute terms and relative value to what is being offered in Salt Lake by some of the other favorite restaurants of the food critic community.  I would love to hear from those who think Alamexo is overpriced in the comments, because I think you're probably indulging the voice in your head that says Mexican food can't cost more than $14 for an entree.  In my forthcoming Chimayo review we will have a long look at what overpriced looks and tastes like, but Alamexo is a bargain.

To delve a bit deeper with one example, Chef Lake spends 8 hours slow roasting the pork in the conchita pibil, which can be had for $19.  If you feel like $2.38 an hour is an exorbitant rate, I lump you into the same category as those friends of mine who think $80 for an 18 year old Scotch is crazy (where else can you buy 18 years of work for less than a hundred bucks people?!).  The only way Alamexo comes up expensive is if you're comparing it to far inferior options.  When held up against its SLC peers Alamexo is one of the best deals in town.  For an appetizer, four cocktails, and two entrees, we spent $102.  Feels like a steal to me.

The Verdict?  Alamexo is a great addition to Salt Lake's food scene and brings the skill of Matthew Lake to a category that previously had no local entrants.  The time that is invested in some of the dishes shows up in the flavors and complexity of the food.  Also, be sure to ask the Chef about the inspiration for whatever you select if he stops by your table - we got some great stories!

Alamexo on Urbanspoon

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