Everything you need to know about El Centenario, la Cenaduria de Ana Rosa, can be summed up in the restaurant's subtitle: "Alta Cocina Tradicional al Estilo Autlán, Jalisco, Mexico." Traditional haute cuisine in the style of Autlán, in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
A quick glance over the menu doesn't reveal much. All the dishes look familiar -- the stuff you'll find in any basic taqueria in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. But Ana Rosa's enchiladas are not your standard enchiladas, and her empanadas not at all what you're expecting from the 35 you've tried before. This isn't Mexican food. This is Mexican food, estilo de Autlán.
We live in the land of culinary extremes -- the McDonald's and the Chez Panisses -- where food is either engineered to have a consistent flavor profile or the highly personal touch of a chef. Unless you're tasting barbecue, chili, or a half-dozen other American folk foods, it's hard to see the subtle variations between the United States' regional cuisines. To me, it sometimes seems silly for Italians from Florence and Bologna to argue about the "proper" way to make a risotto, and farmers from different towns in the South of France to come to blows over the contents of a cassoulet.
Tasting the delicious idiosyncrasies in Ana Rosa León's food, however, I understood better why Diana Kennedy, the North American doyenne of Mexican cuisine, travels around her adopted country cataloguing dozens of variations on tamales and moles, each with its own creation story.
León, who moved to the States from Jalisco a decade ago, opened El Centenario last April, cooking recipes passed down to her from her mother and her mother's mother. At first glance, especially at night, the narrow, deep hole-in-the-wall looks worn and slightly dim. But look closer, and it's well-tended and clean, especially behind the counter. Cenadurias, which come from the word cena (supper), are small, family-owned restaurants that pop up all over the towns of Jalisco and Sinaloa, the west-central states of Mexico. Word on the street is that Ana Rosa's food is the real deal.
Not that everything on El Centenario's sizable menu qualifies as the real deal; it lists Tex-Mex fajitas and Northern Californian burritos alongside many different combinations of traditional antojitos, the masa-based snacks that we northerners grew up thinking of as main courses. As with many Chinese restaurants, at the cenaduria your best bet is to order off the whiteboards on the wall. This can get a little tricky to navigate, since they're placed at both the front and the back of the narrow restaurant. I found myself prowling the length of the room just to see what all I could find, attracting a few stares from the regulars. The whiteboards are also what the handsome Ana Rosa and her shy young waitresses will point you to when you ask for recommendations. And the more adept your culinary Spanglish, the restaurant's lingua franca, the chattier they become.
At Mexican places, it's always hard for me to make it to the appetizers when the chips and salsa are good, and it was hard to resist dipping El Centenario's thick, salty chips in a roasted brick-red salsa with the loud, low thrum of a Harley Davidson. The chips come with a small bowl of creamy, lard-enhanced refried beans sprinkled with a shower of queso fresco, a hard, crumbly white cheese that is to Mexican savories what powdered sugar is to Viennese sweets. My friends and I polished off a few baskets, squeezing lime into our frosted mugs of beer and sipping tall glasses of sweet, mild tamarindo and horchata.
But then the appetizers arrived, starting with tostaditas de ceviche, tiny, crisp little rounds mounded high with a confetti of chopped shrimp and whitefish, red onions, tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro, all marinated in potent dose of lime juice. Scooping bits into my mouth, I kept expecting little star-shaped balloons from a Batman fight scene to pop out: Zing! from the limes. Pow! from the onions. Thwack! from the chiles.
Moister chicken tamales I have tried, but few have come closer to the texture of cake: The thick masa (cornmeal) cakes, shot through with shredded chicken, just called for a dollop of the salsa to set them off. Empanadas can be found all over the Spanish-speaking world, little half-moon pastry turnovers filled with ground meats and cheeses. Ana Rosa's colossal empanada de hongos covered the plate, a thin deep-fried tortilla covered with shredded lettuce and onions. Sautéed cremini mushrooms, melted cheese, and crema oozed out each time we cracked through the crust.
More familiar entrées included a burrito the size of a corncob, filled with the traditional San Francisco beans, rice, salsa, and smoky grilled steak. Like the empanadas, Ana Rosa's enchiladas were showered under a high stack of shredded cabbage, onions, and queso fresco. Picking through the salad, we found thick corn tortillas dipped lightly in oil and sauce -- not smothered in it -- and wrapped around tender shredded beef or chicken. The only dud was a sope, a small platter of masa filled with refried beans and chicken: It had little flavor, and tasted leaden and stale. Many of the antojito platters come with the refried beans, enriched with lard but not tasting of fried pork, and fluffy rice that had absorbed the flavors of the onions and bell peppers they had been cooked with.
Jalisco is famous throughout Mexico for its pozole rojo. This do-it-yourself soup starts with a clear red stock, the color of the dried chiles that perfume it -- Ana Rosa's could have been a bit more concentrated -- with long-cooked hominy (big kernels of field corn soaked in lime) and pork hock. Mix in shredded cabbage, cilantro, chopped red onions, radishes, salsa, and lots of fresh lime juice to your taste to make the soup crunch, pucker, and burn more brightly. One of the most distinctive dishes on the specials menu was tortitas de camarón; tortita is the diminutive of torta, so I was expecting little shrimp sandwiches. Instead, we received a plate of silver-dollar pancakes flavored with ground shrimp and braised in a tomato, onion, and nopal cactus sauce. A little funky, but not bad wrapped in the tortillas that came with the platter.
The best thing we tried was the birria en caldo, beef and goat "in broth." Ana Rosa's broth was no pallid, watery soup but a robust mole -- thick and chile-red, with clove and cinnamon haunting around the edges. We drenched our tortillas in the broth and then used the dunked dough to tear off pieces of beef.
Ana Rosa also makes all her own desserts. We tried two lesser-known desserts, one a fruity, eggy, pineapple-orange sponge cake, and the other a homey bread pudding made with conchas (snail-shaped pan dulces) soaked in a custard of condensed milk, egg, and cinnamon.
"What makes the food of Autlán de Navarro special?" we asked Ana Rosa's niece, our waitress. "Maybe the food's so good because there's nothing else to do there," she replied, sounding like every other twentysomething who's migrated to the Bay Area from less glamorous parts. Perhaps Autlán isn't particularly special. But it comes alive at Ana Rosa's place.
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