Los Poblanos

Mixiotes: Chicken, potatoes and cactus steamed in a bag with adobo and herbs. (Elizabeth Keyser photo / September 18, 2013)

Chef Ramon is making mole poblano. It's after lunchtime at Los Poblanos and Ramon is sautéing batches of whole almonds, julienned onions, whole cloves of garlic, and spices. To his right is a bowl filled with the first batch of the toasted, glistening mélange. He breaks two deep fried tortillas into the bowl. Next, he'll toast three kinds of chiles, pasilla, ancho and mulato, and blend them into a paste. He will create a thick, dark red sauce redolent of smoky chiles, sweet raisins, with hints of clove, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and chocolate.

Mole poblano is one of the most famous dishes of Puebla, considered the gastronomic center of Mexico. People from Puebla are called "Poblanos." Los Poblanos, which opened about six months ago in a dingy strip mall in Norwalk, specializes in the food of this region, and from the first moment I discovered this little place, I've been a devoted fan of this former luncheonette. Juan Bautista is the chef-owner. He told me they're making "the real Mexican cooking" and they "take the time to make it very good." He and Ramon have worked in many of Fairfield County's well-known restaurants, and the food at Los Poblanos is served with touches one associates with higher-end restaurants. The plates are heated. Finely minced herbs decorate the rim.

Of course Los Poblanos makes all the Mexican standards, flautas, fajitas, quesadillas, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, huraches, and nachos. But you'll find dishes here you don't find in most Mexican restaurants. While you're perusing the menu, house-fried tortilla chips and bowls of two outstanding salsas are brought to the table. The smooth green salsa is made with avocado. The orange salsa has a habanero kick. I couldn't pick a favorite.

Red chile pozole, hominy soup in homemade chicken broth infused with chile, has layers of flavor. It's chock full of meat (chicken or pork) and hominy. The pale hominy, dried corn resuscitated and hulled by soaking in an alkaline solution, are soft and plump. Mushroom soup is served bubbling in a hot clay bowl. The red-chili-chicken broth is thick with sautéed mushrooms, meaty green poblano peppers and cubes of potato.

The colorful chalk board lists the daily specials. I ask Juan or Ramon, "What's good today?" The answer might be the chiles rellenos, filled with soft queso fresco, lightly battered, fried and draped in a slightly spicy tomato sauce. If tamarind ribs are on the menu, try them. Glossy, sweet, sour, spicy and fruity sauce covers tender pork ribs. Portions are big, and often served with fluffy Mexican rice, tender, homemade beans, and warm tortillas.

Tacos al pastor are excellent — warm corn tortillas heaped with tender pieces of pork shoulder, habanero-orange in color, and sweet and juicy with pineapple. Minced raw onions and cilantro add bite and freshness.

On the specials board one day was mixiotes. The service is dramatic. The chicken, covered in adobo, and steamed in a plastic bag with herbs, including plantain leaves and hoja santa (holy leaf), cactus and potatoes. At the table, the bag is untied, and the contents poured onto the plate. The cinnamon scented chicken is eaten between pieces of warm tortilla, topped with the avocado salsa.

This dish needs to come with a warning for the American diner. It's not easy to eat. On the day I tried it, the chicken pieces, on the bone, required some work with the knife and fork. And, I did extract a few errand fragments of chicken bone from my mouth. So, if you try the mixiotes, eat carefully. Don't wolf it down.

Juan told me that mixiotes is a very old recipe, and the meat was traditionally wrapped in agave leaves stripped of their outer green skin to reveal a white interior, which Juan says "is like plastic." Sometimes avocado leaves are used. The wrapped meat (originally, goat) and spices are cooked in a pit barbecue. It's often served at weddings.

The only other warning is Los Poblanos doesn't have many seats, just three booths and a couple tables for two. Word's out on how good this place is, so if you don't want to wait in line, try it on an off-hour. There's extra parking in the back. And they do catering and delivery.

Los Poblanos opens at 7 a.m. (except Sundays, when they open at 9 a.m.) and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Chilaquiles is a beloved breakfast dish of strips of fried tortillas, topped with beans, salsa and cheese. You can add eggs or chorizo. Anyone who loves eating salsa, chiles and avocados with their eggs might find it difficult to choose from the nine hearty egg dishes. (They serve American bacon-egg-cheese sandwiches too.)

Los Poblanos is BYOB, but Juan's working on getting a liquor license. He expects to have it in about a month. It will be wine and beer only. Tequila and mixed drinks is not a direction he wants to go in. "I am interested in the food," he says.

Los Poblanos

212 Westport Ave., Norwalk, (203) 286-8482,