$$$$ ($15-$24)
This 55 seat restaurant by the minds behind Bazin's on Church features small plate Mexican food
4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat
4:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sun 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
92 decibels (Extremely loud)

Editorial Review

In Vienna, a sib that may rival its sister
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, September 16, 2012

Patrick and Julie Bazin may have found restaurant success with modern American cuisine in their first Vienna restaurant, Bazin’s on Church, but they say their second one -- Alegria -- reflects what has always been their secret passion: Mexican food.

Patrick is not exactly a stranger to this kind of food. He worked at the late Red Sage in Penn Quarter in the early 1990s and has helped out at celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s Mexican mecca, Frontera Grill, in Chicago. And, says Julie, “Mexican is the food we eat the most at home.”

So it’s not really a surprise that in April they opened the 65-seat Alegria next door to their namesake restaurant, offering small plates of regional Mexican food.

Their new place is appealing, noisy and friendly. Have I mentioned noisy? I think you can track the margarita sales by the steadily increasing sound bouncing off the exposed brick walls of what was formerly a wine shop.

There’s a tiny open kitchen, low lighting from massive wrought-iron chandeliers and a lot of small touches typical of the Bazins’ attention to detail, such as the basket of house-made tortilla chips that automatically comes with two kinds of salsa: smoky red tomato and citrusy green tomatillo.

As for the food, I have to hedge a bit. If you had asked me in May, when Alegria was about a month old, I would have said, “Not worth it.” The sauces were off, the desserts mediocre at best, the seviche bland and mushy, and the prickly pear margarita overly sweet -- unlike the dour bartender, who never smiled.

Now that it’s five months old, things have improved greatly -- although the bartender still doesn’t smile.

The best menu choices are at two extremes: anything with beef. And anything vegetarian.

Most of the seafood offerings, unfortunately, continue to stumble and disappoint. A mahi-mahi dish with tomatoes, capers, olives and garlic tasted closer to Italian than to Mexican, and the fish was overcooked. The chipotle shrimp one night tasted way past its prime, with a strong iodine flavor that could not be masked by the tiny bit of sweet corn salsa.

Some of the seasoning also seems out of balance: overwhelming cinnamon in the chile relleno and pork empanadas, for example, and meek, barely detectable seasoning in the trio of seviches, which continues to be the restaurant’s weakest dish.

But vegetarians who come here will be doing a happy dance. Choices include a roasted portabello mushroom taco with Chihuahua cheese, brown onions and crunchy pumpkin seeds, and terrific, cheesy huitalcoche quesadillas with roasted corn and epazote. There are seven vegetable small plates, including spicy jicama salad and roasted asparagus with red chili vinaigrette, and hearty sides such as black beans and rice.

The guacamole -- everyone’s favorite starter -- seems inspired by Bayless’s Frontera version: a heaping mound of chunky avocado, seasoned simply with fresh cilantro, onion, lime and salt, topped with a sprinkling of white Chihuahua cheese. If you’re accustomed to guac with a kick, this one skips the chiles and lets the avocados shine. It comes to the table in a stone molcajete, and two of you will think you can’t possibly finish that big portion, except that with those fresh, crisp chips and a stiff margarita, it somehow disappears.

There are about six kinds of tacos to choose from, and you pretty much can’t go wrong with any of them. They’re petite -- maybe three bites each -- and come nestled in soft, warm corn tortillas that are made in-house. Among our favorites were the rich, slow-cooked pork with brown onions and enlivened by roasted pineapple, and the spicy shredded beef with guajillo chiles and Chihuahua cheese.

Other beef winners: the seared marinated skirt steak with a piquant tomatillo-chipotle salsa and caramelized onions, and the short rib enchiladas. The tender short rib meat is also used in the nachos, sprinkled among the chips along with black beans and melted cheese. The only thing that would have made these nachos better was more of the tender, slow-cooked meat.

I often get ideas of what to order by spying on the tables around me, which is how I knew to try the albondigas, tiny pork meatballs about the size of a cherry. The meatballs are traditionally served in Mexican cuisine in a soup, but here they’re closer to the Spanish tapas version, prepared with a little smoky tomato sauce that makes them easier to spear and pop into your mouth. Nearly every table had a plate.

Desserts at Alegria are a mixed bag. The tres leches cake -- so named for the tree kinds of milk it’s made with -- has gotten much better from when I first tried it in May. The cake is now properly airy and moist, without being soggy, with a lovely creamy caramel sauce pooled around it. We also scraped up every last bit of a velvety corn flan with blueberry-lemon sauce. But the crispy chocolate fritter, which our server urged us to order, was a dud. Shaped like a bumpy hot dog, the fried outer shell was heavy and tasteless, and the chocolate filling was overly bitter -- almost as if someone had mistakenly used unsweetened chocolate.

Service at Alegria is cordial and helpful -- everything you would expect from owners such as the Bazins, who have been in the restaurant biz a long time and know how to keep customers coming back. Which is also why I have no doubt they will do what’s necessary to tweak the food, where necessary, and keep their second place as slam-packed as its older sister next door.