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THE REAL THING

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Since mid-October, a Mexican chef and his mother have been turning out the kind of authentic dishes that are a rarity in the New York area.

The chef is Jesus Serrano; his mother, who originated the recipes, is Heleodora "Lolita" Vivar. "The food reflects the soul of Lolita and my husband," says Jesus’ wife, Megan Serrano, who works the front of the house on weekends.

This soulful spot is El Huipil (which is Spanish for a woven shirt), an intimate restaurant with wooden tables, Mexican folk art and a great jukebox.

If you’ve been to Mexico and sampled dishes from the kitchen of a "fonda," a simple, family-style restaurant that El Huipil [pronounced wee-PEEL] emulates, then you’re one lucky so-and-so. In those small workspaces, cooks grind fresh spices to be heated slowly atop small stoves and used to flavor complex moles, meat and fish; fresh herbs are chopped and scattered to brighten sauces, and chilies - both fresh and dried - add depth and an underlying heat. With a cold beer (El Huipil offers 10 domestic and Mexican brands), a well-prepared meal in Mexico can be transcendent.

The food at El Huipil is based on the dishes from the mountainous state of Guerrero, where the Serrano family lived before moving to Red Hook. Unlike Tex-Mex dishes that are heavy on cheese, the Serranos prefer a light sprinkling of "queso cotija," a mild, white Mexican cheese. The two Tex-Mex additions are burritos, says Megan, "because customers expect them, but they’re filled with authentic ingredients like shredded stewed chicken with chipotle peppers," and a thick version of guacamole, that differs from the more traditional thinner, sauce-like versions.

The dishes are not hot the way they can be when too many peppers are thrown into the pot. Some are mild and can be given a kick with two freshly made sauces - a green one made of chilies and tomatillos (a tart, tomato-like vegetable), and the other a red salsa with the heat of arbol chilies. The guacamole on its own may be under-seasoned for some palates; stir in a spoonful of either sauce, or both, and it’s like adding color to the outlines of a drawing - the avocados taste nuttier, the onions sharper, the cilantro clean and bright.

Finger foods, like tostadas, the crisp tortilla with different toppings, as well as soft tacos and crisply fried quesadillas, come with a variety of savory toppings and fillings. The tostada stays crisp beneath a stew of tender, shredded chicken given a delightful smokiness with chipotle peppers and dabs of black beans, sour cream and "queso cotija." I also tried the soft taco with a filling of buttery beef tongue, and that quesadilla - with its crisp pastry shell-like coating and creamy potatoes and spicy chorizo on the inside - which heat up the mouth.

On Saturdays, the chefs serve "posole," a chicken and hominy corn soup. Hominy is a large, dried white corn kernel, that after multiple soakings and the laborious removal of the "eye," the little nugget at the top of each kernel, is boiled until fully opened - about twice the size of a piece of popped corn. The flavor is subtle, like the most delicate white summer corn, and they’re firm yet tender, like a tiny dumpling. Sitting in the center of the soup is a pile of juicy, shredded chicken. You add a sprinkle of dried oregano, chunks of ripe avocado, sharp chopped onion, crumbled tostado and pieces of fried pork rind that add a rich, salty note. The dish is finished with a squeeze of fresh lime. Posole is extremely filling and just as comforting as any grandma’s chicken soup.

The restaurant’s signature dish is the "mole de pollo" - chicken bathed in a rich mole sauce. And that sauce! It’s the color of one of its ingredients - bittersweet chocolate - and it has layers of flavors of toasted almonds and sesame seeds, three different red chilies, garlic, sweet plantains and about 50 other freshly ground and pan-toasted spices. It is smoky, licorishy, sweet and tart-wonderful. The chicken leg over which it is served (you can substitute pork) is moist, and sides of yellow rice and black beans are simply seasoned so nothing competes with that sauce. A basket of warm tortillas is served with the entrees.

I liked the "pipian de pollo" almost as much. The sage-green sauce, served atop a chicken leg or pork, is made from ground pumpkin seeds and "hoja santa," a subtly spiced chili. The dish lacks the "Wow" factor of the mole, but its delicacy is appealing. Like the "mole," the chicken’s sides are simple yellow rice and black beans.

At present there are no desserts being served.

There’s real charm in the idea of a mom and son cooking away in the kitchen, with a wife and cousins working the room. The truth is, it’s hard, hard work to source and labor over the kind of authentic dishes coming out of El Huipil’s kitchen. With the second-rate, faux nonsense that passes for Mexican food in our neighborhoods, we need to support those who serve the real thing.

 

El Huipil (116A Sullivan St. between Van Brunt and Conover streets in Red Hook) accepts cash only. Entrees: $7.25-$8.95. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner until 8 pm weeknights and 10 pm on weekends. Delivery available to surrounding neighborhoods. For more information, call (718) 855-4548.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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