Discovering El Nopalito's thrill of the grill
Mar. 29, 2002
The cactus plant that inspires the name of the new Mexican restaurant in Silver Spring's Plaza del Mercado is known as the fruit of the desert. But anyone who has tangled with it unawares appreciates its common name, the prickly pear. (A word of advice: Don't slip one of these fruits into your pocket on a desert walk, even if it is wrapped up.)
The reception we receive is anything but prickly. A gracious greeting and immediate seating put us in good spirits.
So does the knowledge that the chef-owner Ismar Reyes Cruz is a 16-year veteran of some classy D.C. addresses: Red Sage, the Four Seasons Hotel, Jean-Louis at the Watergate and Philomena. He also cooked at the Cuban-Mexican-Spanish Omega downtown.
El Nopalito, his first restaurant, opened at the beginning of January. The chef describes the fare as authentic Mexican homestyle cooking. It's a good fit in a shopping center that already covers the basics: Chinese food (Fu Lin), pizza (Pizza del Mercado), Buffalo Wings & Beer and Baskin Robbins, not to mention fast food.
The place is packed at 6:45 on a Saturday night and the joint is jumping. Latin music fills the bright dining room which is divided into two parts and seats about 120, evenly divided between booths and tables. Television screens at two corners offer diversion and a small bar at the back dispenses five kinds of Mexican beer and margaritas. Large sombreros and colorful serapes act as accents and then some. When the Spanish-speaking staff serenades a fellow observing a birthday, they temporarily crown him with a sombrero.
The night's specials are listed on a board at the entrance: mejillones (mussels), tres pescados (three fish) and camerones (shrimp) Mexicanos. The waiter's recitation of these makes it plain that tequilla, garlic and tomatoes are the tandem flavors for the evening, a pleasant enough choice.
Our waiter seems knowledgeable and apologizes for delays. But isn't that what the inescapably addictive tostitos and fresh tomato salsa are for?
The tequilla, garlic and tomato-bathed mejillones are finger-licking good. The only disappointment is that there is no bread to sop up the sauce.
The three-fish of the special turn out to be salmon, red snapper and sea bass. Could that be bad? Not likely when they are grilled attentively and the salmon is barely pink in the center. It takes a yeoman's effort, and some help, to finish the dish and the accompanying rice and black beans.
For a broad sampling, try the plata Nopalito with Mexican rice and black beans. Customize your platter, choosing red or green sauce on the chicken enchilada, corn or flour tortilla and chicken or beef on the soft taco. No choosing is involved in the other two offerings: the duck tamale is made memorable with a red mole and smoked chipotle crema and the poblano chile rellano's stuffed with crab and shrimp.
There's no lack of desserts: sopapillas, those caramel and cinnamon-topped puffy triangles; bunuelos de manzana, crispy round apple pastries; flan, the ubiquitous caramel custard; mango sorbet and fried plantains. For a richer finish, try the tres leches (three milks cake), a special that's a two-inch-high sponge cake drenched in cream, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Sharing these treats makes them taste better (and makes me feel better, too).
El Nopalito Grill
2259 Bel Pre Road
Silver Spring, MD 20906