location > 815 J Street, downtown San Diego
phone > 619-236-9420
chef > Pablo Becker
PLASTIC SQUEEZE BOTTLES have become both the favorite artistic plaything of professional cooks and, on occasion, the bane of good dining. At El Vitral, a spacious new restaurant that occupies the ground floor of the fine old Schiefer Building on the edge of Petco Park, colorful bands of sauces and salsas streak the huaraches de barbacoa ($9), a threesome of toothsome corn patties topped with highly seasoned shredded beef. Flavored with orange and dried chilies, the meat itself is intensely delicious, and the extra squeezed-on sauces kick the taste buds into overdrive. Fewer would be better.
Chef/restaurateur Pablo Becker took a more restrained approach with El Vitral’s décor, and the result is a striking, inviting space that should draw visitors to East Village not only during Major League Baseball’s off season but also when the Padres play. The menu is equally striking, often bold, sometimes sublime — culinary magic elegantly grooms that workhorse of Mexican cooking, filete a la Tampiquena — and occasionally overwrought. The 28-year-old scion of an accomplished family — relatives own celebrated restaurants in New York and elsewhere, his mother serves as news director for Univision and Telemundo, and his father is president of Banco Popular — Becker seems determined to educate diners who underestimate the subtleties and scope of la cocina Mexicana. In his restaurant, guests who define Mexican food as a selection of combination plates may learn that their knowledge of this sophisticated cuisine doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
In our little universe in Southern California, where Brad and Angelina go together like gin and tonic, chips and salsa pair as naturally as rice and beans. Or so we thought. In the restaurant’s early days (it opened in May), guests who asked servers for this traditional snack — which goes with the excellent house Margaritas ($8) like pretzels and beer — frequently were told, “We’re not that kind of Mexican restaurant.” But then waiters would bring out crisp chips and superior, homemade salsas. By July, the mantra had been dumped in favor of charging $2.50 for a serving of chips with salsas like the perky, emerald-toned verde cruda and a creamy, piquant (rather than fiery) habanero dip.
Readers who have traveled in Mexico know that rice and beans are not inevitable. El Vitral’s tart cilantro-lime rice and murky, persuasively delicious black beans are automatic only with entrées listed as traditional dishes. Homemade corn tortillas (this writer has friends from Mexico who absolutely cannot approach a meal that includes frijoles without tortillas at hand) are available by request, at $2 for three. Side dishes of rice, beans, tostones (fried plantain slices), rajas (pickled chilies) and sweet-potato “mash” sell at $4 the serving.
A broad terrace partitioned from The Park at the Park by flowering shrubs is exceptionally inviting, but during Padres games, guests uninterested in baseball and the noise pumping from the stadium will prefer the high-ceilinged, handsomely proportioned dining room. Constellations of star-shaped lanterns hang above the “tequila lounge” and light the stylish columns of stained glass (vitral) that give the restaurant its name, as well as shelves and walls arranged with galaxies of tequila bottles.
Staffers generally seem well trained and friendly, although there was a needless contretemps one evening when a guest who rarely takes “no” for an answer was told he couldn’t have one of the empty tables on the terrace. The house evidently desired to populate the dining room, but in such issues, the rule of hospitality specifies that guests’ reasonable requests trump other considerations. When summoned, the manager yielded the point, and dinner outdoors proved as pleasurable as hoped.
La cocina El Vitral tends to elegance, and supplements the serrano chile–spiked guacamole tradicional ($8) with such more-elaborate guacamoles as avocado blended with jicama, mango, bell pepper and soy sauce. The ceviche of mahimahi ($10) includes a novelty (at least to this writer) called “Acapulco seasoning.” And clam ceviche ($12) with tomato juice, cucumber, celery and carrots sounds like a solid version of Clamato juice, a hugely popular beverage in Mexico. Shrimp ceviche ($11), bright with orange, tomatillo and poblano peppers, was a lively and engaging presentation of tender shrimp on one occasion, and mostly a puddle of marinade on another.
STARTERS OUTNUMBER ENTRÉES and include tostadas de salpicon (well-seasoned minced beef and black beans piled on crisp tortillas, $8), tacos variously stuffed with beer-battered mahimahi ($10), finely flavored carne asada ($12) and a vegetarian blend of mushrooms, white corn, poblanos and cheese ($9). Sopa de tortilla, a soup widely available in San Diego, is prepared and presented with notable skill ($7). The kitchen also simmers a suave cream of corn glamorized with poblano-flavored aioli ($8).
The “Traditional Dishes” category opens with a marvelously fragrant chicken in mole poblano sauce ($19), introducing a list highlighted by savory pork loin in the pumpkin-seed sauce called pipian verde ($20) and pungently succulent cochinita pibil ($18), shredded, long-cooked pork in a complicated sauce given a lively accent of pickled onions. Any day is a good occasion to slip into a “winter overcoat” or sabana invierno ($19), a hearty arrangement of thinly sliced steak, beans, sharp cheese and crimson sauce that satisfies with every bite. Topping the chart, filete à la Tampiquena costs $29, a price easily justified by this elegant construction of sliced, crêpe-like cheese enchiladas, fork-tender steak spread, subtle chile sauce and nicely textured guacamole.
House creations, called “Signature Dishes,” include a chicken breast stuffed with flavor-enhancing huitlacoche corn fungus ($19) and a reinterpretation of Mexico’s famous chile en nogada that stuffs ravioli (mild chilies flavor the dough) with ground beef and dried fruit and finishes with walnut sauce and a touch of pomegranate ($19). On the other hand, an aggressive, unsparingly apportioned sauce of paprika and lime renders jumbo shrimp with fideo (angel-hair pasta; $27) far too fierce for most palates.
For dessert, the chocolate-wrapped gansito (“little goose”) is an elegant pastry modeled after a popular commercial sweet of the same name ($8). El Vitral serves lunch and dinner daily at 815 J Street in downtown San Diego. Reservations are accepted at 619-236-9420. Web site: elvitralrestaurant.com.