By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
I live in an Alice-in-Wonderland world of restaurants. Some eateries are so big that I don't feel like a welcome patron but an insignificant ant, searching for crumbs to carry away. Others are small enough to make me feel like a large, important presence, my fork wedged against the ceiling as I try to maneuver it to my mouth. And like Alice, I swallow something every once in a while that changes my perspective.
A couple weeks ago, the refried beans at Senor Burrito Kitchen, a tiny Mexican restaurant in Boca Raton, challenged my view of things. No, chef-owner Alfredo Gonzalez didn't put LSD in his smooth, perfectly spiced pinto beans. It's just that he cooks them from scratch rather than dumping them out of a can. He and his business partner, Eduardo Garcia, call them "home-style," which to me means a dish that is presented and tastes as if it were made in someone's home. Garcia and Gonzalez concur.
"People use the word 'home-style' too loosely," Garcia notes. "The word has been used left and right at Mexican restaurants. We want to make an emphasis here that the food really is made on the premises." In fact they're so insistent that the word be reinterpreted (or returned to its original meaning) that they've put out a tabletop notice entitled "Facts of Life at Senor Burrito Kitchen," one of which states, "Homestyle is not a term used Loosely."
513 Northeast 20th St.
Boca Raton, FL 33431
Region: Boca Raton
Well, OK. Gonzalez -- who's cooked at Mexican restaurants in Houston, New York, and Miami -- and Garcia are first-time proprietors. But unlike some novices I've encountered, they know their market and their product. While the fare looks like the usual Tex-Mex mix, which is more familiar to Americans than sophisticated Mexican cuisine (which makes use of foods like squash blossoms and cuitlacoche, or corn fungus), the ingredients are some of the freshest I've encountered, and the recipes are infallible. After a couple of visits to Senor Burrito, it's pretty easy to get the point: The stuff ain't fancy, but it's good -- which is exactly what home-style should be.
What's not so easy to get is a seat. I'd ordered plenty of take-out from the neighborhood haunt, but I didn't realize just how small the place was till I actually ate there. The 32 seats in the narrow, ocher-color restaurant are divided into booths for four, tables for two, and a couple stools at the busy counter. Forget about meeting a group for dinner, as I did -- squash isn't just the name of a vegetable.
It's also difficult, at times, to get a lungful of fresh air. The most popular items are the chicken and steak fajitas, which are served smoking -- literally -- in cast-iron pans. After two or more orders of fajitas, the restaurant's storefront windows steam up like the windshield of a high school couple's car. Oddly enough, the fajita dishes were the only ones that disappointed us.
Written by Garcia and Gonzalez, "The Facts of Life" notes that 55 percent of the menu is vegetarian, which thrilled the member of my party who doesn't eat, in Phoebe-from-Friends terms, "food with a face." But while the chicken and steak dishes sizzled on our table, a dish of sauteed onions, mushrooms, and bell peppers, served with melted jack cheese on top, was thoroughly limp. The accompaniments -- beans, Mexican rice pilaf, sour cream, and warmed flour tortillas -- were pleasantly hearty, however.
At Senor Burrito, chef Gonzalez uses only Zephyrhills spring water, rather than purified tap water -- an extra step not many eateries take. Canned products are also a no-no, with the exception of sodas and jalapeno peppers. "We tried to make our own," Garcia says, "but they were too spicy." Gonzalez proves just how overachieving he can be by making all sauces in house. His salsa, freshened with cilantro and served with crisp, just-fried tortilla chips, was appropriately zingy but not fiery. We particularly admired the avocado green sauce, a tangy tomatillo puree served with a spinach quesadilla appetizer. The sauce livened up the two flour tortillas, which had been stuffed with a combination of mozzarella and jack cheeses and fresh leaf spinach. A mound of refried beans served as a centerpiece for the griddled quesadilla sections.
A similar green sauce softened an entree of Swiss green enchiladas. Shredded chicken filled three corn tortillas, which had been baked under a layer of Swiss cheese. Though obviously not Mexican, the cheese added a nutty, buttery flavor that complemented the corn. The old Mayan sauce, a rich, almost fruity, axiote-flavored dressing for the house specialty of cochinita (marinated pork), was also delicious. The lean pork may be ordered as a burrito, stuffed into a flour tortilla, or as soft tacos, spilling out of warmed corn tortillas.
It's one thing to make tomatillo sauce but quite another to make mole, which demands a careful hand and an eye for balance. Like curries, some moles consist of as many as 14 spices, seasonings, and chile peppers. One popular seasoning is chocolate, which in mole is considered a savory, rather than sweet, additive. Senor Burrito offers two exceptional versions of mole -- one red, the other green -- that douse boneless chicken breasts. And the mole dinners point up another notable fact of life: Although the chicken breasts were steaming hot, as if they'd been nuked, the restaurant doesn't have one microwave oven on site.
Like the menu the nachos appetizer is small. In fact the pile of corn chips, oozing with refried beans and cheeses, could be larger. You can order them with beef or chicken for an extra $1.50 or for $2.50 get a side of outstanding guacamole, fresh chunks of California avocados mixed with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. We had no complaint about the size of the house salad, a plateful of iceberg and romaine lettuces tossed with ripe avocado and feta and blue cheeses and topped by a house vinaigrette fragrant with herbs. Nonvegetarians can turn the same dish into an entree by adding grilled chicken. The bowl of chicken vegetable soup was gargantuan, not to mention fantastic; the broth was filled with boneless chunks of poultry as well as carrots, onions, and snipped cilantro, with Mexican rice on the side.
The dessert selection is limited to two choices, but they too are homemade. Flan, which I usually don't care for, was so airy and light, I almost became a convert. Natilla, or vanilla pudding, was sophisticated; it was creamy and had just a touch of orange zest.
Garcia and Gonzalez have been busy enough in the past eight months to consider looking for a second location. But while they are confident in their product, they're not cocky. The last two facts of life on their list are: "Plain and Simple Entree Descriptions" and "No self-complimenting adjectives." In other words patrons won't see phrases like the "Best burritos in the Southeast!" or "Unbelievable guacamole!" on the menu. So allow me to fill in the blanks: The cochinita burritos are some of the best in the Southeast, and the guacamole is, in the best sense of the word, "home-style."
Senor Burrito Kitchen.
513 NE 20th St., Boca Raton, 561-347-6600. Lunch and dinner daily from noon till 9 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 10 p.m.
Chicken vegetable soup
Mole poblano dinner