It only took 20 years for me to visit Mexicali restaurant. I was aware of its former location on Court Street, and its move to larger quarters on the same block in 2005, yet a reason for walking through the door never presented itself.
I was scared off by the eatery’s name: Mexicali sounds suspiciously chain-like to my ears, and the multi-page menu appeared to offer every dish in a Mexican cook’s repertoire. I was certainly wrong about the name: Mexicali is the one and only eatery owned by Eva and Guillermo Sanchez. And, even with a menu as broad as this one, chef Hitolito Meneses takes great care in the dish’s preparation.
The menu is labeled Tex-Mex and the majority of the dishes are familiar tortilla preparations such as fajitas, quesadillas, burritos and chimichangas. There are solid contenders among this fare, but it’s the house specials that surprised me with their sophistication and light, well-seasoned sauces.
We walked through the large front dining area with its stone covered walls and dark wooden bar to the second room, lively with its deep gold walls and buzz from big groups chatting over pitchers of sangria.
After a few sips of the tart, refreshing mango margaritas, we dipped crispy, fried tortillas into silky guacamole heavily laced with cilantro. The dip was slightly flat on its own so we stirred in a couple of spoonfuls of the pungent salsa that accompanied the chips. Perfect.
Several appetizers spoke Mexican with a Spanish accent. In one, small, tender clams on the half shell were paired with a light, briny, parsley-heavy green sauce that amplified the sweetness of the mollusk. When nothing remained but a pile of shells and sauce, we swiped pieces of bread through the sea-scented liquid.
Not as successful as the clams were several large, tender shrimp bathed in an oily garlic sauce brightened with paprika. That deep pimento color promised a headier experience than it delivered.
On the Tex side of the menu are chimichangas, deep-fried, stuffed tortillas that are about as rustic a South Western dish as you can find. Meneses gives the entree an elegant spin by filling the tortillas with plump, tender shrimp and serving them with a luxurious, wine-tinged white sauce made with cream, seafood stock and crunchy bits of minced onion that lent a subtle tang.
Next time, I’ll take a pass on the chile rellenos. When these fried peppers are made properly, the poblano chiles are tender, the cheese filling (traditionally cotija or Monterey Jack) is creamy and the batter puffs up crisp and brown. Meneses’s version drowned the chiles in a salsa verde — it resembled a damp sponge.
The kitchen rebounded with a competent mole poblano, the richly spiced stew flavored with chocolate. The dish, with its layers of spices, originates in the city of Puebla in Southeastern Mexico, known for being the country’s homeland of great cooks. This version, served with moist chicken breast and leg meat, is nowhere near as multi-dimensional as the tar-colored sauce served at the late, great El Huipil in Red Hook, but it’s a pleasing rendition. The stew is accompanied by moist yellow rice and fairly bland refried beans — in other words, ordinary Tex-Mex sides.
A suave red snapper played the city cousin to the less refined dishes offered. The filet was clean tasting with a layer of tangy, quickly sauteed tomatoes and onions. A few green olives lent their saline notes.
The roundup of standard Mexican desserts — flan, bunelo (fried flour tortilla with whipped cream), fried ice cream and fruit paired with cream cheese — didn’t tempt me.
Mexicali (141 Court St., between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street in Cobble Hill) accepts American Express, Diners Club, Discover and Visa. Entrees: $10.25–$13.50. The restaurant serves dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends from noon–4 pm. Subway: F to Bergen Street. For information, call (718) 625-7370.