Making Mexican magic
Ever since the tortilla got co-opted by the lean cuisine and fast-food industries, it's been possible to get a wrap or burrito anywhere, but every now and then it's nice to go back to the Mexican cuisine that made them popular in the first place. What you find is so much more than tacos and burritos.
Unfortunately, the market here is not so large that it can sustain a Mexican restaurant with a large repertoire. For the most part, those craving Mexican are still drawn to those combination plates of chimichangas, taquitos and nachos that are more of a 20th-century American invention. All those are offered up at Los Chaparros, but diners with the curiosity to look beyond the basics will be rewarded.
Los Chaparros is luxurious compared to the typical hole-in-the-wall taco joint. You'd never compare it to Hoku's or anything, but it's spacious, painted in toasty adobe colors and accented with Mexican figurines and reproductions of paintings by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
The restaurant's name, which translates as "The Shorties," is a reflection of owners' Mario and Lisa Barron's stature, "short and squat," Lisa said.
"When we looked at all the other restaurant names here, they all are named after a family or object. We wanted something that meant something to us," she said. "People don't know what it means so they always ask about it and they seem to like it. They buy our T-shirts."
PART OF THE menu reflects Mario's upbringing in Mexico City, but no Mexican restaurant could survive without a healthy dose of north-of-the-border specialties in the form of chimichangas, quesadillas and enchiladas, offered at $8.50 for one item, $12.50 for two, $15.50 for three. The beauty of these combination plates is that you can substitute soup or a house salad for the usual rice and refried beans.
Right away, you are offered the usual chips and an excellent homemade salsa that nevertheless quickly takes a back seat to a side order of guacamole ($3/$6). Whereas a lot of the guacamole served up in this town is runny and full of fillers, Los Chaparros' version is full of chunky avocado. There's no need to order a salad after this, but if you do, you can make a meal out of the Los Chaparros salad ($7.50) of tortilla chips topped with romaine, black beans, corn, cheese, pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and your choice of chicken or steak ($9.50) or fish or shrimp ($11).
The fish and shrimp is the same offered in an entrée of Mojo de Ajo ($14), one of the best dishes on the menu. It starts with olive oil infused with chipotle pepper and plenty of garlic for rich, saturated flavor that you just don't get with quick foods. The house rice, too, is cooked in a broth of tomatoes, cilantro and vegetables so it's full of flavor, as opposed to restaurants where the rice registers visually as red but on the palate as white.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mario Barron, chef/owner of Los Chaparros, displays some his most popular dishes: Mojo de Ajo (shrimp in garlic), front, and a chimichanga. He's holding a quesadilla and chips that come with a combination meal. The restaurant also features Mexican sodas.
Other dishes, like the chile relleno ($8.50), chile verde ($13) of chicken or pork in a mild but slightly tart tomatillo sauce, or fajitas ($12 to $15 with mixed veggies, steak or shrimp), don't need much of an introduction because they're so popular. About the only thing I didn't care for was the dry chicken in a tamal ($8.50).
If you're just meeting friends for pupu, look no further than appetizers of jalapeño won tons ($6) or the Tex-Mex version of artichoke dip ($6), served here with jalapeños and bubbling Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. It comes with more tortilla chips, so you may want to avoid ordering nachos at the same time or risk overdosing on chips.
The bravest might try the chicken mole ($13). The mole is a thick, complex sauce of chilies, spices, herbs, peanuts and bitter Mexican chocolate that may scare some because of its near-black color and seemingly jarring combination of ingredients. Don't be afraid because it may become your favorite dish.
The Barrons continue to add to their menu as diners become more accustomed to the authentic flavors of Mexico. By next month they will introduce menudo (tripe stew) and, to give the Tex-Mex set equal time, will offer an appetizer of chipotle chicken chingalingas, the equivalent of a deep-fried chicken chimichanga cut bite-sized to share.
"Some people systematically try everything on the menu, one at a time," Lisa said. "Others will order the same thing every time, but we're continuously trying to expand people's horizons."