Cal-Mex cuisine, just like its black-sheep cousin, Tex-Mex, has its apologists and its detractors. The critics, of course, deride the food for not being regional Mexican cooking, as though geography has no influence on how one puts together a meal. Cal-Mex shares another quality with the Texas branch of the family, too: It’s hard to define in any scholarly or even satisfactory way.
Is Cal-Mex defined by the cheesy combo plates of the once-powerful El Torito chain, by the healthy/lardless approach of the California-based Baja Fresh chain, or by the fried fish tacos first popularized in SoCal? Is it all of the above or just one of three separate cuisines (including Fresh-Mex and Baja-style)? Or maybe it’s something more self-defining, as though the cuisine’s contours are the result of selective memory. Cal-Mex is what you remember it to be.
Certainly Adams has memories of specific California-oriented Mexican dishes, from burritos to crispy tacos, that he brought to life at Poblano. But in the 14 years since launching his taqueria, he has expanded not only its presence, with two more locations in Arlington County, but also its menu. Aside from tributes to Cal-Mex tacos and burritos, Poblano serves up dishes influenced by regional Mexican cooking, whether from the Yucatan (an achiote-rubbed steak Tampiqueno) or Oaxaca (a chicken mole verde).
Based on my experiences with the grilled steak (fragrant with the peppermint-y aroma of annatto seeds, but underseasoned and chewy) and the mole verde (the breast meat bone-dry, the pumpkin-seed-and-lettuce sauce uncomplicated), I strongly suggest sticking to the Cal-Mex dishes that Poblano knows best. Adams has clearly drummed into his crew the importance of fresh ingredients and house-made preparations, even after good old American industrialization allowed restaurateurs to hawk tacos and margaritas without the need to deeply train employees in either cooking or mixology.
So the clean, sweet pucker of the margarita comes courtesy of a homemade, not pre-made, mix. The beef fillings are not bottom-grade hamburger spiked with packaged seasonings, but shredded, full-flavored top-round that has been braised with poblanos, onion and garlic. Even the avocado dressing drizzled onto a massive burial mound of meat, refried beans, cheese, guacamole and shredded iceberg (otherwise known as Poblano’s multilayered and textured tostada) is prepared with mayonnaise made in-house. You read right: Taqueria el Poblano makes its own mayonnaise.