You don’t have to remind me that first impressions can be deceiving. I’ve tried out my share of restaurants that seemed stellar in so many ways, only to prove less exalted during a second visit. But I still feel confident, after a single encounter, in saying that La Calle makes a first-rate addition to the downtown dining scene.
Although the lunch menu includes a sizable assortment of tacos, dinner time provides little reminder of the Tex-Mex fare that we’re all so accustomed to on this side of the border. La Calle — Spanish for “the street” — specializes in what chef Valentino Sandoval defines as modern Mexican cuisine.
The sophisticated, nuanced and just plain delicious result reflects what Sandoval learned about food, growing up in Puebla, Mexico, and from a couple decades of experience in Philadelphia restaurants before moving in 2015 to Baltimore. He worked at the former Corner Restaurant and Charcuterie Bar in Hampden before deciding to open his own place, collaborating on the venture with his three brothers.
Some aspects suggest a work-in-progress. A lounge area with sofa and chairs looks rather stark, for example, and a large TV screen hanging in that area isn’t exactly classy. But there’s an inviting simplicity to the restaurant’s interior, with its bare, dark orange walls, its wood and brick features.
As for the exterior, there isn’t much to draw the eye (I wish they could find a less tacky “now open” banner ). But maybe folks stuck in their cars outside La Calle at rush hour, thanks to the city’s perpetually mistimed traffic lights, will realize it would be more fun to pull over and grab a meal.
You are made to feel genuinely welcomed here by the chatty, cheerful staff. And there’s additional mood-enhancement from a dynamic mix of Mexican folk and pop music piping through the sound system.
Speaking of mood-enhancement, we would have enjoyed the extra lift of cocktails or wine, but a liquor license hasn’t come through yet (it’s BYOB meanwhile). Still, we received abundant stimulation from La Calle’s vibrant, nicely compact menu.
Our starters included a terrific tostada containing tender shrimp and avocado; the freshness of the dish was matched with a sit-up-and-take-notice jolt from jalapeno. Tlacoyos con pollo — a doughy delight packed with shredded chicken, black beans, cheese and more — revealed an earthy corn flavor. And the chihuahua cheese croquette (queso frito con cilantro) also charmed, enlivened by a salsa verde.
Main courses revealed exceptional finesse from the kitchen. The perfectly crispy exterior of the Pacific Northwest salmon generated considerable pleasure by itself. The fish, moist and meaty, gained layers of texture and flavor from the accompanying fava beans, tomato salad and an aioli infused with the corn-derived, almost mushroom-like ingredient huitlacoche.
The outside of the Cornish hen also revealed wonderful crispness. Inside, the breast meat was a bit dry, but still satisfied in taste and texture. The plate was enlivened by a supporting cast of fava beans, tomato salad and, especially, mole poblano — the marvelous sauce with origins in Puebla, containing chili peppers, chocolate and heaps of other ingredients.
As classy as those dishes were, top entree honors went to the pork tenderloin (puerco en salsa verde), which could not have been more succulent. It had lively company from the salsa, as well as broad beans, zucchini and corn.
Because all the food comes in sensible portions, the old no-room-for-dessert excuse doesn’t hold up too well here. A good thing, too, considering La Calle’s artistry.
We found the lyrical tres leches cake superbly balanced to ensure a subdued sweetness. And although some of us usually yawn at the mere mention of flan, we were bowled over by the version here, with its ethereal, super-creamy consistency and exquisite flavor (again admirably restrained on sweetness). A gentle sprinkle of amaranth seeds on top provided the crowning touch.
Those desserts got all of us smiling. The whole evening did, really. It was that kind of meal.
La Calle 4 stars
10 South St.
Cuisine: Modern Mexican
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $8; entrees $17 to $21 (Carne Placero, a ribeye steak for two, is $55)
Ambiance: The sleek, minimalist decor lets the food do the shining.
Service: Informative, attentive, super-friendly
Parking: Street, garages
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Call ahead for assistance.
Need to know: It’s BYOB until a liquor licence is issued.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]