After eating anonymously, I introduce myself to a restaurant's owner to set up an interview. This sometimes inspires horror. Chilango's owner Ricardo Jordan looked particularly nonplussed, but agreed to meet.
When the hour came, Jordan greeted me, introduced his wife, Donna, and then disappeared. Donna, personable in the extreme, told me their story. Ricardo, a Mexico City native (a "Chilango"), came to the US over 20 years ago. He and Donna met through mutual friends nine years ago. They got together, had margaritas, and Ricardo taught her to salsa. Then she tried his cooking. "Between all that and the food," she says, "It was like Like Water for Chocolate." Donna used to cook the Greek food she grew up on, but she's a convert.
When I have questions about the food, Ricardo briefly comes and answers. Then he's gone, then back with an article about peppers, along with a chart showing which he uses in which dishes. "It's complicated," he says in his soft, accented voice. Realizing I care about the food, he takes over for Donna, and now he's got me in the kitchen.
We gringos tend to think of Mexican food as simple: beans and cheese with some cumin in a tortilla. Tex-Mex might be fairly simple, but what Ricardo Jordan is doing isn't Tex-Mex. How do you make that mole, Ricardo? "I could tell you the things, but you couldn't do it," he says. "It's tricky, it takes a long time." It's very hot, dark, complex, and wonderful, too.
Barbacoa is flank steak, slowly braised in the oven with guajillochiles. The meat falls apart, and the flavor is deep and rich, hot but not searing ($12.50). I liked that better than the Mexican steak ($13), strips of steak cooked with peppers and onions; I'd ask for it spicier on another visit (the menu encourages that).
Pork adobo uses a different pepper combo, ancho and pasillo ($12). Donna insisted that I try pork tomatillo, with tomatillo's tang complemented nicely by the subtle smokiness of chipotle peppers ($12). If I gave stars, this would get a bunch.
Dinners come with yummy Mexican rice, as well as Ricardo's refried pintos. You can also add pico de gallo, sour cream, or one of many salsas at no change (fresh, chunky guacamole is $1.25 extra). Complimentary chips are fried fresh, and the chip salsa is irresistible. I asked the difference between the two red salsas. "Totally different," says Ricardo, "different peppers." Thanks. The salsa verde is a good one if you dig tomatillos. Ricardo wouldn't settle on exactly how many salsas he makes.
You can get some familiar stuff, too: enchiladas, quesadillas, burritos, tacos. They're good. Stuffed, fried items are quite cool. A chimichanga is a flour tortilla with cheese and meat (almost any on the menu), fried then topped with salsa ($11). Flautas are flour tortillas rolled with chicken and deep-fried, then topped with salsa, cojita cheese (think Mexican feta), and lettuce ($11). Chilerellano is a highlight, a roasted poblano, stuffed, battered, sautéed, and topped ($12).
Ricardo makes his own chorizo with a 70/30 pork to beef ratio. Try it in chorizo con queso, a super rich appetizer ($5). Ricardo's ceviche is in a tomato sauce with cooked seafood rather than raw marinated in lime ($6.50). I prefer it the other way, but it's worth trying.
Lunches are basically the same food, but cheaper, and with a choice of rice or beans ($6 to $8).
Chilango's is very comfortable. Jordan, who worked in construction, did the work with his family (though he says working with your family "is stupid"). The staff is friendly if not always totally informed, and treats kids well. Wait times tend to be long, so if you bring kids, bring them early.
Such is life when one guy makes absolutely everything from scratch. "Everything you bring to your mouth," Ricardo says, "whatever meat, it came from Ricky's hand." The best chefs are just absorbed by a passion for food; this is one of those guys. "I'm cooking with love," he says, and it shows. Chilango's is the most interesting Mexican restaurant within 20 minutes of the city, well worth the drive to check it out.
Chilango's Mexican Restaurant, 42 Nichols Street, Spencerport, 349-3030. Hours: lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 4 to 8 p.m.
Updates: Cassava Jamaican Restaurant has closed and the Manilla Grill is looking for a new location. Duo has opened at the former Glengarry Grill at Eaglevale. 99 Fast Food (Vietnamese) has pho downtown on Main, next to CJ's Soups. Visit www.SavorIndependents.com for alternatives to chain-restaurant dining.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas of www.savorlife.com.