Restaurant News & Reviews

Cardinal Valley eateries serve authentic Mexican food

Consider Mexican food. This fabulous cuisine, with its seemingly infinite regionalisms, complex spices and sometimes deceptively simple preparations, has, like all imports, morphed in its immigration to the United States to accommodate the sensibilities of its new home. Especially in restaurants.

It has long occurred to me that Lexington has two distinct types of Mexican restaurants, usually dictated by where you live or work. One category caters to Americanized tastes, reducing unfamiliar seasonings and adding lots of cheese and fat. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it's not the whole story.

The other category requires a bit more sleuthing — or at least driving. There are late-night taco stands scattered around the city and some good taquerias and supermercados along New Circle Road, but the mother lode of authentic Mexican restaurants is in Cardinal Valley's small enclave around Village and Alexandria drives off Versailles Road.

To sample the real deal, I recently visited Lulu's and Restaurante Aguascalientes. I recommend that you do, too. Both are inexpensive, and they capture flavors and textures that their competitors outside of Cardinal Valley do not.

Of the two, Lulu's corners the comfort-food niche. If it weren't for the large dining room, you could be at someone's home, complete with family members watching television and cheering on their favorite futbol team.

The kitchen, I was told, is run by Lulu herself. Her buffet ($7.99 on weekdays, $9.50 on weekends) has about a dozen items. Some are incongruous, such as spaghetti (I guess no matter where you are, everyone loves pasta). Others, notably pork chops, suffer from too much time on the hot table. But most are delicious and muy auténtico.

There is great pozole, or spicy hominy grits, and cactus strips in a hearty chili sauce. I liked the tender pork belly, and they say that if you have a hangover, menudo, aka tripe stew, will restore your balance. In Lulu's hands, when long-simmered and brightened by lime juice and cilantro, tripe is more than merely medicinal.

Every bite will be enhanced by three wonderful salsas — a zingy tomatillo, a dense and spicy tomato and jalapeño, and a cooked red salsa with plenty of heat — as well as a bowl of chunky, rustic guacamole ($2.50) with chopped tomatoes, white onions and cilantro.

But I still prefer choosing from the menu, caring less about how much and more about what I eat.

Five enchiladas ($7.99) were lightly coated with almost a glaze of cumin and chili rather than a heavy sauce and stuffed with poached chicken, all served with lots of boiled potatoes and a handful of lettuce and sour cream. Real country cooking, Mexican style.

Because prices are so reasonable, I decided also to sample some ahuichile ($5.99), or seviche with chili. A generous pool of lime juice "cooks" the shrimp and creates a lovely citrus bath for shredded carrots that make this dish not only healthier but attractive.

Restaurante Aguascalientes, on the other hand, feels more like a restaurant — less personal, but the sort of place one goes for an enjoyable lunch or dinner and, of course, the best of Spanish-language music videos and talk shows.

There were dishes here I liked, including the simple soft taco al pastor ($1.25) stuffed with grilled pork, the good guacamole much like Lulu's (99 cents — really!), and three seviche tostadas ($5.99), made here with a delicate whitefish.

But then there were dishes that I loved, loved, loved!

Don't miss out on the nopales gorditas ($2.59 each), plump pockets of fried masa, or corn flour, with a buttery mouthfeel to die for, stuffed with strips of cactus having a peppery punch that will warm up your taste buds without searing them.

And I could probably eat Aguascalientes' mole poblano ($6.99 with rice and beans) once a month for the rest of my life. Two pieces of snow-white chicken, fork-tender, were served under a dark pool of savory, spicy and rich chocolate sauce. A beautiful contrast. However, whereas many Mexican restaurants turn out a sticky mole paste, Aguascalientes' version is suave and smooth as silk, a slip of a coating with layers of flavor — of course, ancho (and other) chilies, but also a hint of clove, a touch of cumin and a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top.

I am sure I will continue to patronize my local spots, inertia being what it is, but when I truly want to go south of the border, I will always be, like, totally a (Cardinal) Valley girl.