Carnivore's Dilemma 

Which of El Jarro's splendid tortas to sample first?

El Jarro spans both fancy and finger-smudging messy, a high-low tension that gives the food its personality. On the messy side are norteño versions of beefed-up botanas — basically, Mexican snackies. On the other side are the fancy entrée plates you find in restaurants just beyond the zona turística of Mexican resort cities, Veracruz-style fish and cream-drenched sautéed prawn dishes. The fork food is nice, but the best things here are foods you eat with your hands. I first wrote about this place two years ago, before it existed as El Jarro. In 2004, Guillermo Dominguez opened this narrow storefront restaurant wedged up against Postino and named it Los Jarritos. Soon after I reviewed it in early 2005, he got a letter from the Mexican soft drink company Jarritos. The Goliath from Guadalajara said it'd sue him if he didn't drop the name. This David backed down and renamed his tiny place.

But the food stayed the same, with the same quality of surprise. The botana side consists mostly of sandwiches, a list of Oaxacan tortas that eat like meat epiphanies. Think of the Mexico City-style torta you get at, say, Picante in Berkeley. Scrape off the refried beans and crema, pack it instead with seared meats and Oaxaca cheese, and there you go: a torta that's less like seven-layer dip in a roll and more like those exquisite Tuscan porchetta sandwiches Oliveto serves up each summer at the Rockridge street fair. El Jarro is one of the best sandwich places in the East Bay — maybe the best.

With nine tortas to choose from, you can come back again and again before deciding on a favorite. The Toluca flaunted the gilded unctuousness of browned pork by bringing together two parts of the beast — more than two, considering it contained chorizo, an amalgam of fatty scraps. Slices of unfatty loin picked up deep color in a sauté pan, while a crumbly bed of rendered chorizo focused the nutty taste of pork fat by framing it with aromatics: whole anise seeds and little flecks of guajillo chiles. With avocado slices and a big plug of softly melting Oaxaca cheese — it has a clean-tasting, cultured-dairy tang — the Toluca packed layers of richness into a crusty, buttered, mayo-dabbed roll.

A torta named Puebla wrapped itself around less concentrated flavors, but there was still plenty of taste and texture. With their delicate green acidity, suave avocado slices gave scope to the taste of seared, thinly pounded chicken breast and the muffled bite of roasted poblano chiles. Mexican place names were replaced with numbers for two El Jarro tortas, the Super Specials #1 and #2. The #2 is a post-NAFTA sloppy Joe: a huge clot of meticulously shredded carnitas moistened with guajillo chile sauce, topped with Oaxaca cheese, and packed into a torta roll. Call it a sloppy José, whatever. It's delicious.

If El Jarro's tortas are unexpectedly lush and tasty, they aren't the only botana surprise. Consider the taco salad, which, despite the name, doesn't have even a whiff of kitsch: no taco shell bowl, supermarket cheddar, or crushed Doritos. Even "salad" doesn't quite fit, since this is a dish devoted to meat. Essentially, it's a ground-beef version of the salty, tomato-and-chile-sauce-moistened pork hash called picadillo Oaxaqueño. Next to a dark fried flour tortilla, the heart of the dish is a mound of warm picadillo heaped on shredded iceberg, with ice-cream-scoop heaps of guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo. The tortilla was shattery — cross sections revealed multiple layers, like the brittle leaves in rustic pie pastry. But vivid flashes didn't end there: Mixed with the lettuce, scooped up into tortilla shards, the picadillo dialed up a déjà-vu of larb, the Lao/Thai warm meat salad made sometimes with minced beef. Except larb, you know, never has shreds of Oaxaca cheese melting into delicately waxy strings.

Naturally, the Mexican Caesar is more conventionally salad-like. It does contain a handful of tortilla chips. But they're the thin ones the kitchen fries up and serves warm (chips and salsa have a cost here, like the pastries set out as bait on café tables in Paris). As Caesars go, it was good: Any diluting of flavor from watery romaine found its solution in an emulsified and vividly green cilantro vinaigrette the kitchen spooned on top. It's more of a lime-ette, really — a blend of oil and sharp-tasting lime juice, not vinegar. Together with hot, charred strands of grilled chicken (we sprang for the upgrade), the spunky dressing lifted an otherwise average Caesar pretty far above average.

So much for the restaurant's super-size botanas. There's plenty of interesting stuff on the entrée side too — except for one itty-bitty little thing you have to make peace with: the ubiquitous guajillo chile sauce. Okay, so it's not so itty-bitty. The sauce, which looks like reddish chocolate syrup, finds its way into and on top of several of El Jarro's dishes (it's the sauce that makes the sloppy José so, um, sloppy). Basically, it's a sugary, one-note molé. Don't get me wrong; I'm not trashing it. Rather than an elaborately formal molé — a 1950s Mexican cookbook I own has a baroque formula for Oaxacan black molé, a recipe the author swears she snitched from a convent. This is a stripped-down homestyle version, a kind of proto-molé.

It glazed a hunk of codfish in a dish I liked a lot. Actually, the fish was lingcod, a dense, scrappy critter of the coastal Pacific, with flesh like that of certain firm-textured rockfish. It was seared and baked, painted with the guajillo sauce, and served on a bed of onions and nopalitos (young cactus paddles). The sweet sauce pretty much found balance with the nopalitos, which tasted like they'd been simmered in a vinegary poaching bath before getting marked on the grill.

But there was no such balancing mechanism for enchiladas Placeras. Though you can get them with chicken, the default is veggie: three tortillas filled with stretchy Oaxaca cheese and a refined dice of carrots, potatoes, and zucchini. Raisins too. That may sound weird, but underneath a ladle of sugary guajillo sauce, the raisins didn't taste remotely sweet. I know — bizarre. But this isn't a dish for everybody. It's a feast-day set-piece, a family specialty from the town in Oaxaca — Placeras — where Guillermo Dominguez spent part of his childhood. The enchiladas with sweet sauce are a party food, something eaten rarely, a dish as rich and sugary as candied yams at Thanksgiving. That you can taste it at all on a Tuesday night in Lafayette may be the most surprising thing about El Jarro.

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