Restaurant Reviews :
by Robert Rich, November 2002, for MV Voice and PA Weekly
A Celebration of South Mexican country cooking
When thinking of Mexican food here in the United States, most people imagine fast-food variations like tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. In Mexico, they call this American food. The regional cuisines within Mexico bear only a passing resemblance to California taquerias.
For the last 25 years, Estrellita has specialized in authentic southern Mexican regional dishes. In Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla and Chiapas you'll find some of the most complex sauces in the world, rivaling North African and Indian food in their artful balance of sweet, spicy, tangy and savory flavors.
It's easy to drive past Estrellita, recessed behind other shops on San Antonio Road, near the corner of El Camino Real. You might never guess from its humble exterior that this family-owned restaurant serves some of the freshest and most traditional Mexican food around.
Estrellita dates back to 1958, when Maria Bustamante began serving burritos in the living room of her rented Victorian home. As her popularity grew she moved her restaurant into a shop next door, where it still stands.
Estrellita's rejuvination occurred in 1978, when Nancy Corlay and her family relocated from Chiapas in the south of Mexico. They purchased the business and kept the old menu, but added a seasonal display of special dishes which changed by the month.
As you walk into the restaurant, you'll see a long table by the door with a half-dozen plates of beautifully prepared food, with numbered signs behind each plate describing the combinations. Typically priced at $12.95, these items aren't on the menu. You can dip a tortilla chip into sample bowls of each sauce to help you decide upon a favorite.
Over the years, the printed menu at Estrellita has diversified to include some of the most popular specials; but the ever-changing display by the door still dominates, and most customers order by sight.
My wife and I plan our visits to Estrellita by season, hoping to catch our favorite dishes. We make a point of going in May and September, since these have been the months when Estrellita makes its splendid mole (pronounced mo-lay). Several finer Mexican restaurants in the area serve mole poblano, the thick dark sauce made with nuts, chocolate and dozens of other ingredients, but Estrellita makes one of the best I've ever had. They also make several other types of mole, which we don't often see elsewhere.
Mole poblano ranks among the world's great sauces. Legend tells of a 17th century Dominican nun in the town of Puebla who wanted to create a special meal for a visiting dignitary. She pulled every ingredient from her pantry, blending together several types of chiles, seeds and nuts with native plants like epazote, cinnamon and cacao. Her intuition led to a blend unlike any other. Centuries later, Puebla still holds the distinction as the home of mole poblano, and every household makes its own unique variation of this immensely complex sauce.
Estrellita's mole poblano shows incredible finesse, balancing hot and smokey flavors from chipotle and other peppers, with a hint of musky bitterness from the chocolate and herbs, slightly sweet and tangy from raisins and citrus. They serve the mole atop boneless skinless chicken, a nod to American tastes, yet their rendition of this powerful sauce rings absolutely true.
I wish Estrellita served its mole all year, but their method of preparation is so labor intensive that they prefer to serve it only around the Mexican holidays of Cinco de Mayo in May and Independence Day in September. They crush the spices by hand in a traditional mulcajete (mortar and pestle), then cook and age the ingredients together for days.
Chile nogada often appears on Estrellita's special menu around Valentine's Day. Traditionally made for lovers, this seductively sweet dish uses a large fresh pasilla chile pepper, stuffed with raisins, apples, walnuts, carrots and a hint of cinnamon, topped with vanilla-scented sweetened sour cream, pomegranate and rose petals. It exudes an exotic tropical perfume.
I have ordered this dish several times in different seasons, and sometimes the presentation has been less than perfect. The peppers occasionally break after being stuffed, and the filling falls out - delicious nevertheless.
Chicken Oaxaca became such a fixture on the specials table that it finally landed on Estrellita's daily menu. They marinate boneless skinless chicken for three days in a blend of orange juice, chiles and achiote, a tangy paste made with anatto seeds and other spices from the Yucatan. The flavor of achiote reminds me of the tart sumac powder served as a condiment in Persian restaurants. The deep rust-colored sauce imparts an earthy complexity to this excellent dish.
Our most recent visit to Estrellita fell on Dia de los Muertos, the day after Halloween. Faithful to tradition, fresh tamales dominated the specials that week ($12.95 as usual.) Four different types of tamales came stuffed with either black bean, sweet corn, chiles & cheese, or swiss chard.
Offered three to a platter, each tamale was dowsed in either sour cream, green tomatillo sauce, or a Veracruz style sauce with tomatoes, onions, chard, olives and capers. The heavy moist tamales tasted sweet, clearly made from fresh masa (crushed kernels of sweet corn soaked overnight in mineral lime.)
Besides tamales, some of the special platters featured "bewitched pork" (puerco embrujado) in a dark red sauce made from cascabel, guajillo and chipotle peppers. The savory-tart-smokey-hot sauce covered tender cubes of marinated pork in a country style marriage of strong flavors.
Each table comes supplied with the requisite chips and salsa, and each dinner begins with a small salad of iceberg lettuce with strips of carrots and red cabbage, in a spicey tomato-based house dressing. The salad has remained consistent for years. The tortilla chips are always warm, thin and crisp.
The two addictive house-made salsas vary slightly each time we come. Typically, the green tomatillo salsa tastes mild and creamy, while the roasted red pepper salsa tastes firey hot with a vinegar bite. We usually regret stuffing ourselves on chips and salsa before the monstrous platters arrive with our main course.
Desserts ($3.50) include flan (vanilla custard), churros (sweet pastries) and sopapillas (a deep-fried flour tortilla with syrup and cinnamon.) I have never had the appetite to order desert after such enourmous dinners.
As for drinks, I think most Mexican food pairs better with beer than wine. Estrellita's selection of Mexican beers ($3.75) covers the favorites, including Tecate, Corona, Modelo, Dos XX, Bohemia and Carta Blanca. The wine list tends toward low-end brands like Woodbridge ($3.75) but the manager plans to add better wines from Argentina and Chile in the near future.
In the past I have ordered fresh house-made sangria ($3.95), blended from red wine and fruit juice. On my last visit I noticed a switch to the bottled Reál Sangria mix, a minor disappointment. Estrellita also serves a frosty margarita made with agave wine ($3.95), a refreshing contrast to the rich spicy food.
Bustling and Casual
Estrellita bustles on weekends, yet the waiters remain friendly and patient. Sometimes the staff is quite busy, and occasionally we've had trouble catching their eye for drink refills or extra salsa, but we never felt forgotten.
The festive and colorful decor creates a casual atmosphere. Paper cutouts drape across the ceiling, tourist posters and folkloric clothing share the walls with a Frida Kahlo portrait and articles about Chiapas. Parents bring their children, and laughing groups of students and engineers come to escape their work for an evening.
Estrellita's welcoming warmth attracts regular customers, just as it did in Maria Bustamante's home forty years ago. For lovers of authentic regional food, this family-owned restaurant offers a rare glimpse into the country cooking of southern Mexico. Once people try the mole poblano, their hooked.