Chile rellenos, golden brown outside, bursting with beans, shredded pork, and queso fresco, and slathered in salsa roja. Consomme-clear chicken broth garnished with bits of fried tortillas, avocado, and a dusting of queso fresco. Frijoles -- refried beans -- a deceptively mundane-looking study in brown, stoked with garlic and just enough chipotle pepper to make you sit up and take notice. A cup of salsa verde, cool and green tasting, dolled up with a mixture of pickled jalapenos and garlic and transformed into a spicy powerhouse of flavor. And regular unleaded gasoline, with 10 percent ethanol, at $3.77 a gallon as of press time.
Here in the prim and proper north, the idea of gas-station cuisine long ago became the province of the roller dog, the Slurpee machine, and snacks that ought to bear a warning from the American Heart Association. The idea that you can get good -- even great -- food at a gas station seems almost ludicrous. But nonetheless, it's true. Some of the best and cheapest Mexican food you'll find in our area is made in a kitchen at the back of an Arrowmart gas station in Chili.
According to owner Jose Abarca, his family's decision to open Itacate in a gas station was, in part, a matter of economics and risk -- the overhead in opening in such humble digs was attractively low. But another, and perhaps more important, consideration was the atmosphere that Abarca, his wife, Lourdes, brother David (who manages day-to-day operations at the restaurant), and step-son Jose Reyes wanted for their restaurant. They aspired to introduce Rochester to fondas -- small, informal, family-run restaurants serving home-cooked food from a limited menu at bargain prices.
Unlike typical Mexican restaurants in which the food has been altered to suit American tastes -- long on fat and cheese, with spice as a unidimensional blast of heat rather than a subtle complement to a dish -- Itacate's food is simple and healthy. It's a menu that Abarca says is composed of the "things that we eat in our kitchens every day. It's my mother's chile rellenos. It's my wife's recipe for the frijoles and the bean soup. It's stuff that you can eat every day that won't kill you with cholesterol."
That's not to say that the food at Itacate is in any way bland or uninteresting; quite the opposite is true. The Abarcas make everything but the tortillas from scratch (although David Abarca told me that they did briefly experiment with pressing their own corn tortillas when the restaurant first opened), and coax every bit of flavor out of every ingredient. The results are sublime.
Take the bean soup, for instance. It's just pinto beans, bacon, onion, garlic, some cumin, and a handful of other spices. But because Lourdes Abarca sweats the bacon and the onions until the fat renders out of the meat and the onions almost caramelize, adding the spices and garlic at just the right moment to release their flavors but not burn them, she gets an intensely flavorful base for her deep brown soup -- one that can make you believe that she started with an incredible stock rather than, as she maintains, mere water. The soup is full of a mother's love and almost unbelievably rich (a small cup with a couple of tortillas could probably sustain you for a whole afternoon of hard work), packed with tender beans and melting chunks of bacon, each element part of a glorious harmony. Add a handful of pickled jalapenos to zip things up, and you could probably eat this every day and never tire of it.
In addition to soup, Itacate offers a simple menu of burritos, tacos, and chile rellenos and tamales (depending on the season and the mood of the cook). Tacos and burritos are stuffed with your choice of fillings, including black or pinto beans, red or green salsa (I always go for the green), pico de gallo, lettuce, cilantro, jalapenos, crema, real queso fresco, and a host of other toppings. You can have any or all of them, the menu tells you, "as much as tu quieras (as long as it fits in the tortilla)." That last bit is a fair warning: on two visits the medium burritos I ordered were packed so full of meat, beans, and other condiments that the flour tortillas could barely contain them. Usually halfway through I found myself removing the tight aluminum-foil wrapper and attacking the saucy, exploded remains with a fork.
Tacos were similarly loaded, the tiny corn tortillas heaped with meat and lettuce, topped with salsa and crema. Picking them up and eating them quickly was imperative, if I wanted to pick them up at all.
The star of the show, though, is the meat that the Abarcas put in their various dishes. There is excellent grilled chicken and beef, nicely charred but still juicy and tender. But it's the braised meats that really stand out. Pork shoulder slow-cooked in guajillo peppers and spices, luxuriating in a brick-red broth, nearly provoked me to grab a straw and drink from the pan. Tender, mild-looking shredded beef was packed with spicy goodness -- perfect with a little squeeze of lime and a fresh tortilla cooked, not just heated up, on the kitchen's flat top. Even Itacate's carnitas (roasted pork) is worthy of high praise, benefitting from a masterful hand with the spices and the application of heat, the meat tender and pleasantly porky under its dry rub of cumin and chilis.
A final word on location: Itacate is not easy to find, and you aren't likely to stumble on it casually. My advice is to plug the address into your GPS, run your gas tank nearly dry, and look out for the small sign in front of a nondescript gas station at the corner of Buffalo Road and West Side Drive. You'll be glad you made the trip.