Travel in Spanish-speaking countries has primed us to expect beautifully crafted dishes full of bright, complex flavors. So when it comes to Latin American fare, we’re spoiled and won’t consider going out of our way for a chain-style place serving watered-down Tex-Mex.
We heard about Mi Salvador & Mexicano Restaurant in Chelsea and head out with fingers crossed.
This is the real deal: well-prepared dishes that do both Salvadoran and Mexican cuisines proud. Generous portions served in an exuberant setting are the hallmarks of this mom-and-pop establishment.
Vladimir Chino, originally from Puebla in central Mexico, opened the restaurant and the bakery next door two years ago with his wife, Gloria, who is from Chalatenango, El Salvador. Nowadays, the couple’s family recipes are prepared by head chef Juanita Dablas. When you arrive, you can’t miss how Chino has decorated the place. Serape blankets in vivid pink, black, and green frame windows. Murals of maidens and Aztec warriors cover the walls, painted parrots and terra cotta pottery are set here and there. Every nook feels curated.
Chino’s decorative flair extends to the platters of food. Mexican dishes are garnished with miniature Mexican flags perched on toothpicks; Salvadoran dishes with Salvadoran flags.
But in the midst of this authentic decor, you’ll also find two mounted deer heads, one with a holster of shot glasses draped around its neck. We’re chuckling about this when our server brings out a basket of warm tortilla chips and finely textured fresh, flavorful salsa. A small serving of yucca frita con chicharrones ($5), fried yucca root with fried pork, turns out to be thickly cut wedges of the fluffy, starchy delicacy garnished with lime wedges, cucumber, and tomato. Don’t expect crispy pork rinds. These Salvadoran-style chicharrones are lean, substantial chunks of pork that are well-seasoned and a bit chewy.
Bistek ranchero ($12), a delectable platter of grilled marinated skirt steak topped with a sauce of bell peppers, onion, and tomato, is garnished with a roasted nopal, a cactus pad without prickles, and a whole jalapeno pepper, crinkly from flame-searing. Like most of the entrees, the beef comes with rice, iceberg lettuce salad, sliced avocado, and a side of beans (request them whole or mashed). Camarones al mojo de ajo ($12), whole shrimp sauteed in a sauce made with heavy cream, garlic, and a dash of achiote oil for color, is delicious. We leave laden with a stack of take-out containers and resolve to come back for the weekend specials.
On a Sunday, at tables full of families and couples, we see pozole de puerco ($10), pork and hominy stew, and mondongo ($10.50), beef tripe soup, or menudo. Both are satisfyingly hearty and, like every other dish, these weekend specials are large enough for sharing.
Chino later explains that both dishes get their bright vermillion hue from boiling, blending, and straining guajillo chilies. The table next to us orders the molcajete for two ($20), a feast of sizzling meat, seafood, cheese, and cactus bathed in bubbling red sauce, served in a volcanic stone mortar. Shrimp ceviche ($15), ample for four, features chunks of shrimp, diced tomato, avocado, and cilantro dressed with tart lime juice. We’re enamored with the tamales Salvadoreno ($1.85), a tender savory bundle of corn masa stuffed with potato and chicken, steamed in a dark green banana leaf. Chilies rellenos ($9.50), breaded poblano peppers filled with beef and drenched in sauce, are full of flavor, if a tad oversalted.
Here are some tips for the best experience here: On cold nights, sit away from the drafty entrance. All five television screens are on, but this time of year, the one with the audio on high is a children’s Christmas special. Because the menu doesn’t translate everything into English and the server’s first language is Spanish, be prepared to dive in without a thorough explanation of some dishes. And if you come with a big group, you are in luck. Chino will be opening a private back room this month. It will be filled with beautiful art, he tells us. He’s decorated it himself.
Owners Vladimir Chino and his wife Gloria Chino. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)