Instead of chips and salsa, Dos Taquitos Centro welcomes customers with a little -- hmm, what's the Spanish term for amuse-bouche? Recently, chef Marta Brewer-Sanchez greeted dinnertime guests with a small dish of delicately crisp fried hominy kernels surrounded by stacks of thinly sliced vegetables sprinkled with lime, pequín chile and sea salt. It was a tantalizing taste of the dining experience to come.
Odds are you've never dined in a Mexican restaurant even remotely like Dos Taquitos Centro, which opened in September in an artfully restored historic building in downtown Raleigh. Unless, that is, you've been to the original Dos Taquitos in North Raleigh. Like its suburban sibling, the new downtown eatery offers a mix of authentic regional fare and inventive riffs on Mexican cuisine, and serves them against a kaleidoscopically colorful backdrop of wall-to-wall art and bric-a-brac.
But Centro is hardly a clone. It's considerably smaller than the original Dos Taquitos, and the vibe is more artsy bistro than funky cantina. The menu is more compact, too, and shares only a handful of dishes in common with the offering in North Raleigh. Longtime fans who venture inside the Beltline will be happy to find the restaurant's signature steak taco and enchiladas Pueblas listed.
For the most part, however, Centro's seasonally changing menu explores new culinary territory. Quesadilla de cordero, an appetizer option on the fall menu, is unlike any quesadilla you've likely had before - more of an empanada, really, starring chipotle-barbecued lamb in a cornmeal pastry crust. La pasilla rellena, which features a smoked pasilla pepper stuffed with shrimp and refried black beans, is another winning appetizer option. So is a refreshing cilantro-spangled seviche. Anyone suffering chip-and-salsa withdrawal ought to find ample comfort in an order of chunky guacamole or authentic epazote-laced queso.
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A plump poblano pepper stuffed with an exuberant hash of pork, apples, pears, apricots, plantains, almonds and raisins, was a rewarding entree option on the fall menu. For those whose tastes lean to less sweet fare, grilled swordfish with a vibrant pumpkinseed-thickened pipián sauce provided a savory alternative.
But for my money, the star of the entree show was a grilled cilantro-marinated skirt steak listed as Angus Perfectus on the fall menu. If the name strikes you as rather pretentious for a dish featuring such a humble cut of beef, be advised that this is the fabled Wagyu beef, and it's surely the most tender skirt steak you'll ever put in your mouth.
Happily, Angus Perfectus is a carry-over on the new winter menu, which is scheduled to be introduced this week. So is a vegetarian entree featuring grilled seasonal veggies with wild mushroom chilaquiles. Steak tacos and enchiladas Pueblas, not surprisingly, are afforded permanent status.
More than half the menu's listings will change, however. Oaxacan cheese and garlic-sautéed shiitake mushrooms will replace the lamb in the quesadilla, for instance, and the poblano's fruit-and-nut filling will change to a savory blend of goat cheese, chayote, corn and potato. Seviche will make way for posole and plantain leaf-wrapped tamales. Pan-seared salmon with a chipotle-tamarind caramel will take the place vacated by swordfish pipián.
Centro's lunch menu is not an abridged version of the dinner offering, but is designed for quick service without sacrificing quality. Tortas, gorditas, whole-wheat burritos and half a dozen other options pass that test with flying colors, though the eatery has quickly become such a popular lunchtime destination that it's a good idea to arrive before noon if you don't have time to wait for a table.
Regardless of whether you're there for lunchtime counter service or candlelight and table service in the evening, you're in for a pleasant experience. Angela Salamanca, who runs the restaurant, will see to that. Salamanca worked for years at the original Dos Taquitos, which is owned by her uncle -- and now, partner -- Carlos Salamanca. Her experience shows in a level of service that's as exceptional as the food. And while the Dos Taquitos pedigree is evident in Centro, Angela Salamanca has managed to give the new restaurant its own distinct personality. Like uncle, like niece, you might say.
Note: Dos Taquitos Centro will be closed for the holidays from Dec. 24 through Jan. 2.