Restaurant Review: Restaurant Reviews
Mi Madre's hermana is growing up
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Oct. 22, 2010
Zandunga Mexican Bistro1000 E. 11th, 473-4199
Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; Saturday, 10am-11pm; Sunday, 10am-3pm
Happy hour: Monday-Friday, 4-7pm
In a city overflowing with average Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants that offer the same rehashed dishes, it is refreshing to see restaurateurs choosing a more adventurous path with authentic regional recipes and modern takes on Mexican classics. I've never been a fan of Mi Madre's, but I was certainly intrigued by the menu at Zandunga, the new endeavor from the Torres family. They recently took over the space formerly occupied by Primizie Osteria and gave it a face-lift, adding bright, Mexican-inspired oranges, yellows, and reds and adorning the walls and counters that surround the open kitchen with Mexican pottery and art.
I first visited for lunch with friends, sitting outside on a beautiful afternoon. Enticed by the unique cocktails, we tried the Tepache-tini, a blend of rum and homemade tepache, a traditional Central Mexican beverage of fermented fresh pineapple juice. Unfortunately, the drink was weak, and the tepache flavor tasted diluted. Perhaps it was shaken with too much ice. The frozen guava agave margarita, on the other hand, was dangerously delicious, and the Mexican martini was strong and garnished with a skewer of pickled jalapeños, carrots, and onion. For appetizers we ordered the snapper and scallop ceviche ($9) and the guacamole de mi tierra ($8). The snapper and scallops in the eye-pleasing ceviche are cut into small pieces, which is to my liking. However, their subtle flavors are overwhelmed by too much bell pepper, a strong flavor that does not belong in ceviche even if it is meant to be merely decorative. The guacamole was very fresh and tasty, and it disappeared quickly, riding on homemade yucca and plantain chips. The tortilla soup ($6) is more like a chipotle chicken stew – thick, smoky, and spicy, dotted with avocado slices and thin tortilla strips. The espinaca con chorizo salad ($9) is a winner, with fresh baby spinach with a light vinaigrette, grilled onion, cantaloupe chunks, shaved Oaxacan cheese, and lots of crumbled chorizo. As one of my dining companions mentioned, anyone that uses chorizo as a condiment is all right by us. For our entrées, the mojarra al mojo de ajo ($13) was superb: perfectly cooked tilapia fillets topped with a dollop of garlic-chile oil served with a side of cubed potatoes and mushrooms seasoned with epazote. Tortas ahogadas are a popular Central Mexico street snack that I have never seen on an Austin menu before. Zandunga's version ($12) does the street classic justice: a large bolillo chock-full of pork carnitas, pureed black beans, and avocado, smothered half-and-half with a spicy ranchero sauce and a tangy tomatillo salsa verde.
A dinner visit garnered mixed reviews. We sampled another of their signature cocktails, the strangely named vodka amarga, which translates to "bitter vodka." It was more sweet-and-sour, with tamarind pulp, agave nectar, and lime juice and a rim of liquid chamoy – refreshing and tasty. Appetizers were excellent, especially the queso fundido con huitlacoche ($6), a cast iron skillet filled with melted Oaxacan cheese topped with poblano strips, mushrooms, and huitlacoche, served with small house-made corn tortillas – a rich and delectable dish. The guacamole al gusto ($9) differs from the lunchtime version: The freshly mashed avocado comes with a side of finely diced toppings so each diner can season the avocado pulp to taste with roasted jalapeños, fresh mango, orange segments, red onion slices, and lime wedges. The ensalada de nopal ($7) is an inspired blend of finely shredded red cabbage for crunch, diced tender nopalitos, finely chopped crispy bacon, and crumbled queso fresco, tossed in an authentic oregano vinaigrette. For our entrées, we chose the "North vs. South" chile relleno ($16), a roasted poblano stuffed with a spicy picadillo (seasoned with chorizo, perhaps?) and topped with ranchero sauce, and an ancho chile filled with poached chicken, topped with mole. Sadly, this promising dish was a complete disappointment. The ranchero sauce was overly spiced with black pepper, masking the flavor of the filling. In contrast, the mole was bland and uneventful, tasting like it came directly from a jar, although our gracious server claimed they make everything in-house. If that is the case, the chefs should consult a different recipe. The thick and juicy grilled pork chop with guava-quince demi-glace ($18) was a better option. The side of Mexican ratatouille – tiny diced chayote, tomato, cilantro, onion, and corn kernels – had a welcome cooling effect, although the sauce was too strongly flavored to let the accompanying chile de árbol spaetzle speak for itself. For dessert we opted for the Ruta Maya café de olla flan ($5) topped with fresh whipped cream, slivered almonds, and powdered cinnamon, a very good choice.
Clearly, Zandunga's kitchen is on the right track, but at this point, some menu items read better than they taste. Every dish is beautifully presented, and service is courteous and prompt. A bit more fine-tuning should help this young eatery achieve its full potential.