Restaurant Reviews

Magnificent Mexican

If any decade of the last millennium should be written off for eternity, it's the '70s. The trends were horrific -- feathered hair, tube tops, the Hustle. Not a saving grace among 'em. In fact, with the exception of the emergence of certain supergroups like Styx (hey, don't begrudge me my guilty pleasures), I consider the whole decade a wash.

So why does everyone seem intent on bringing back the '70s? Everywhere I look these days, there's another retro reminder. Men with blond, highlighted bangs à la Ricky Martin. Wrap dresses and hip-huggers that make even teenyboppers look overly fleshy. Clubs like the Loft, a Studio 54­esque nightspot spouting disco at 2500 watts, located in the upper reaches of David's on the Avenue, a Mexican-American restaurant that opened on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach in December.

Fortunately David's is the kind of place that, despite its second-story Dance Fever, could never have existed during America's decadelong culinary xenophobia. The eatery does feature a menu of innovative and freshly prepared American specials, but the Mexican cuisine is a revelation, offering items simultaneously regional and haute, made with indigenous ingredients like huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on ears of corn, also euphemistically called corn flowers). Indeed the xochimilco, an ancho chili­ infused crepe stuffed with huitlacoche, serrano peppers, and red onions, is a signature entrée. Though it sounds like a main course for the adventurous, the filling reminded us of domestic mushrooms, and the supple crepe, softened with a mild cotija cheese sauce, was easily plied with a fork.

Owner José "David" Peraza-Arce, who visits every table in his establishment, was born in Mexico City and grew up in the Yucatán. But his Delray Beach eatery is clearly Anglicized by its name, menu, and co-proprietor, Peraza-Arce's American wife, Marilyn Flanagan-Peraza. Oddly he includes phonetic pronunciations for some Mexican dishes, but not others: Flautas, he wants us to know, is "flouh-tahs," but he leaves us in the linguistic lurch with names like Ixtapa poblano, a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a delectable combination of minced blue crab, guajillo peppers, green olives, and melted Chihuahua cheese. Don't worry if you can't pronounce this starter, because the servers look and sound like holdovers from the All-American Coasters, the restaurant that preceded David's; no one's likely to make fun.

Peraza-Arce is so sure of his kitchen's authenticity, he'll allow you to sample its dishes before ordering. One of my guests was unsure if she could handle the piquancy of the mole poblano, a sauce that contains as many spices as an Indian curry. Peraza-Arce kindly brought her a dish of the intricate stuff, darkened with cocoa and sweetened with ground raisins, so she could try it without committing herself. As it turned out, the mole had too much bite for her, though those of us with a fondness for spicy foods found it wonderfully complex. She ended up with a grilled chicken breast from the American side of the menu, but she didn't lose: Oozing with an assortment of cheeses, the poultry was a juicy morsel perfumed with basil.

Despite the chicken breast's success, however, I'd recommend the pollo en escabeche instead. First stewed and then charbroiled, this chicken slipped off the bone as easily as a pashmina from a shoulder. The tangy broth that moistened it was complemented by a pile of pickled red onions and roasted peppers, each vegetable imparting its own emphasis. A dish with a similar texture and pungency, cochinita pibil, however, was uncommonly dry. Baked in banana leaves, this shredded pork tenderloin should drip with moisture like a rain forest. This cochinita rather suggested a windswept desert.

Salpicón Yucateco, though also shredded, was much more refreshing. The skirt steak had been cured in citrus juices until it began to fall apart, then served as a cold appetizer, garnished with radishes and a superb, perfectly seasoned guacamole. Though the menu doesn't offer a simple dish of guacamole as an appetizer, you can find it on the list of side dishes; order it with the complimentary tortilla chips, which are homemade and lightly salted.

Left to my own devices, I'd order a completely Mexican meal, beginning with something like the salsa de albañil, a dip comprising green tomatoes, Chihuahua cheese, fresh avocado, and fragrant cilantro, and follow it with almond-and-thyme­crusted snapper, pan-fried in garlic-toned oil. And I'd finish with the gigantic burrito dessert, a puff pastry filled with custardy cream and topped with strawberry sauce and white chocolate.

But then I'd miss out on one of the signature American appetizers, executive chef Louis Verna's special spicy chicken purses. Filled with a zesty chicken mousse, these little dough bundles were complemented by homemade barbecue sauce. And while the mint jelly accompaniment kind of threw me in this place, I also can't see resisting Verna's rack of lamb, eight delicious, toothy chops, and a chocolate layer cake to wrap it up in strictly American trappings.

That's not to imply that every American dish is an unqualified winner -- I can do without some puerile potato skins topped with cheddar cheese and bacon. Nor is every Mexican dish a hit. Ceviche, for one, was fishy rather than tart with lime juice. And the décor could use some work to make the place less sterile. Although they're probably meant to recall Maya sunsets, the pink-coral walls glow with a hue more suited to Boca Raton's suburban stucco. The diner-style tables, just-serviceable wine list, and teeny-tiny wine glasses all suggest that Peraza-Arce should give more thought to exorcising the ghost of the former tenant from the establishment.

In the end, however, there's no question that the fine Mexican fare is the bona fide draw. "Will you be staying for the nightclub?" Marilyn Flanagan-Peraza asks when she answers the phone for reservations.

"Lord, no!" will be my answer every time. You couldn't pay me enough to revisit the Hustle. But for honest-to-goodness huitlacoche, I'll return time and again.