Can we be discerning about Mexican restaurants? I’m beginning to comprehend just how inspiring the Mexican culinary landscape is when chefs artfully combine bright, bold, and fresh ingredients in order to produce dishes that appeal to all five senses.
Having visited Rick Bayless’s outstanding Topolobampo in Chicago and Richard Sandoval’s modern southwestern La Hacienda in Scottsdale, I have come to realize that there is no reason why we should expect any less from Mexican restaurants in our own communities. Fear not taco, burrito, enchilada, and Chimichanga lovers, there are plenty of restaurants ready and willing to serve, but you will have to search in order to find authenticity.
Any true Rhode Islander worth their weight in clam shells will probably remember Casa Lupita with the utmost of fondness. The décor was vibrant, with Mariachi music flowing as effortlessly as the Margaritas, free chips, and salsa. The waitresses in traditional Mexican clothing danced around tables with enormous sizzling platters of semi-traditional fare. The only people missing from this satisfied dining crowd were the actual Mexican people themselves! They were probably eating in restaurants more likely offering dishes more reminiscent of their childhoods – like at Don José Tequilas.
Don José Tequilas humbly sits on Atwells Ave without major fanfare. Is it possible that this little Mexican restaurant could share the same city block with the Tortellini Titans of Federal Hill? Well, for starters the restaurant offers a warm and inviting space for which to accommodate an intimate party and/or a larger celebratory one.
Our visit to Don Jose’s was not a premeditated one. I was meeting a friend visiting from Dallas and thought he would appreciate an attempt to quickly find a restaurant that could flex Rhode Island’s Mexican muscle! We ordered the obligatory Margaritas, chips, salsa and guacamole because in my opinion, if a Mexican restaurant can’t impressively deliver on this, it’s downhill from there.
The note-worthy variety of Tequila’s led me to the fact that Don Jose’s Margarita selections are all made with Grand Marnier, Contreau, and fresh lime juice. Sour mix is generally a miserable mixture of water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, and artificial coloring. The acidity often burns the back of my throat and luckily, Don Jose’s has the good sense to simply use fresh lime juice, sugar, and water.
When it comes to guacamole, the avocados must be properly ripened in order to achieve the mild flavor and buttery texture. The high fat content gives this fruit an almost creamy consistency. The avocado flesh is prone to enzymatic browning when exposed to air, so it is imperative that guacamole is freshly made in order to preserve the taste and vibrant green color. Don Jose’s guacamole was expertly prepared and served in a Molcajete-type bowl along with homemade and warmed tortilla chips. The salsa, perfectly perfumed with cilantro, provided a moderate back note of heat.
My entrée was Bistec a La Mexicana - grilled and chopped sirloin steak which included peppers, onions, tomatoes, and Guajillo sauce (fresh green tomatillos and Guajillo peppers). This also came with a side of rice and beans. The sirloin was tender, flavorful, and juicy. The peppers and onions were properly cooked to preserve texture and color, and the Guajillo sauce was an enjoyable alternative to the other Chipotle, Mole, or Ranchero type choices. The warmed and freshly made corn tortillas were the perfect side to accompany the meal. The flavorful side of beans could have been brought up to temperature a bit more; the rice however was hot and very moist. Although moist rice sounds trivial, moisture carries flavor. Many Mexican restaurants pay little attention to the rice and beans. Being two staples in Mexican cooking, a lack of attention to these primary accompaniments is lazy.
The overall menu at Don Jose’s offers authenticity in the form of fresh seafood, beef, pork and chicken specialties. Chile pepper varieties such as Poblano, Chipotle Guajillo, as well as sauces like Mole, Tomatillo and tequila-lime should garner your attention when ordering.
Therefore, to answer my own previously posed question – could Don José Tequilas share the same city block with the Tortellini Titans of Federal Hill? “You’re damn right they can!”
Don José Tequilas 351 Atwells Avenue Providence, RI (401) 454-8951