Chad Sparrow was in Mexico City last spring, eating around the capital in advance of opening a Mexican restaurant in Northern Virginia, when he says he encountered the best food of his trip.
The place was Pasillo de Humo, in the scenic Condesa neighborhood. The chef was Alam Méndez Florián, a native of Oaxaca, where he practically grew up in his parents’ establishment, Restaurante las Quince Letras, helmed by his mother, the esteemed chef Celia Florián. Sparrow remembers the tortillas made with heirloom corn at Pasillo de Humo “blew my mind.” On behalf of Common Plate Hospitality, his restaurant group based in Alexandria, Sparrow persuaded Florián to relocate to the United States and help bring to life Urbano 116, at 116 King St.
Food lovers could hardly wait to book a table. Mexico City is on every gastronaut’s radar these days. Oaxaca is revered for its cuisine, featuring building blocks including chocolate, mezcal and mole. Alexandria was also overdue for some love on the dining front. I’m sure I wasn’t the only critic to note the opening date in January on his calendar.
Not long afterward, I showed up with a clutch of appetites and breathed a sigh of relief upon entering the dining room. Urbano 116, named to reflect a city vibe, looked like truth in advertising: a sea of sleek white leather chairs surrounded by a bar near the front window, tall tables for two on one side, and white brick walls painted with Mexican wrestling masks, with colorful real ones on display behind glass. If the booths swathed in teal fabric had me sucking in my stomach and the new mom in my party grateful not to be pregnant anymore — the seating was that tight — the rest of the space, including a second dining room enlivened with a mural reinforcing Mexico’s passion for lucha libre, seemed intent on erasing Old Town’s vanilla food reputation.
And then we got some drinks and chips — and immediately wondered where we might go for a second meal. The margaritas were of the quality you’d expect in an airport lounge — no second round, thanks — and the chips, so light they snapped in the smoked salsa, were both shiny with oil and salty as a deer lick. Subsequent dishes were auctioned off (“Who gets the ceviche? The cauliflower taco?”), and diners were obliged to move things around on the table to accommodate the plates, which came minutes after they were ordered. I’ve felt less rushed during fire drills.
“The chef is from Oaxaca. Everything is 100 percent authentic,” one of the more gregarious servers told us as we read over the menus. Yet much of what followed made me question whether my fond taste memories of Florián’s birthplace were a dream — and how involved the head chef is with his staff of 15 cooks.
There’s a reason many critics visit restaurants several times before rating them, and that’s because restaurants are basically live theater, prone to change with the season, the staff, the mood of the chef, the freshness of its produce orders and more. While consistency — in service, cooking, even atmosphere — is the holy grail, the reality is a performance that’s apt to be a little different from meal to meal. Return lunches and dinners proved the point: Urbano 116 is an inconsistent and frustrating place to eat. Basics extending to the gratis chips and salsa can be so different from one meal to the next, you swear they’re from different kitchens. (“Is there liquid smoke in this?” asked a dining companion, recoiling from the dip one dinner.) At the same time, the restaurant is a tease, with just enough charm to string diners along.
If you only had say, mushroom soup, or a meaty taco, you might challenge my conclusions. The first is a puree of mushrooms whose sly heat and subtle crunch set the bowl apart from the rib-sticking pack. Julienned apples, the surprise texture, marry well with the earthy mushrooms, invigorated with the smoked chile paste called chintextle. Tongue taco does a good impression of roast beef (and creamy squiggles of tomatillo-avocado puree make the eating livelier), while the carnitas taco mixes tender and crisp bits of pork. Both arrive on small, pliable, blue or yellow tortillas that rely on heirloom corn and some heat from the griddle for their flavor. Lamb cooked to shreds with cumin and cloves has taste going for it, but not temperature; the taco was tepid.
Actually, the salsas that accompany the tacos give me hope for the restaurant, too. There are four, each as distinct as their color. Green gets its shade and fire from jalapeño and cilantro; red is thanks to chile de arbol; brown is made with charred habanero; and yellow is sunny with emulsified carrots and stinging with vinegar. The condiments reveal layers of flavor that elude other preparations.
But Mexican enthusiasts cannot live on salsa and a few tacos alone, at least not at what aspires to be a well-rounded restaurant. It took me some hunting, but I scored a minor pleasure in grill-striped butternut squash. The soft wedges teeter on cauliflower puree and get finished with a scattering of pumpkin seeds and crumbled goat cheese. The entree is a triple threat plate: vegetarian, easy to like and, at $17, the least expensive on the menu. If only it had more company. And if only I hadn’t eaten the pork belly, seared as if by a bulldozer over heat and as defiant of my fork as the polished concrete beneath my feet. The tough block of meat does the job of a paper weight, keeping the grilled pineapple and baby carrots beneath it from escaping. Similarly, the chicken in an enchilada draped with pipian — a smooth sauce made with tomatillos and pumpkin seeds — left me thinking it had been cooked in a dryer, on high.
The pendant lights over the tables seem to be designed for putting dishes in the spotlight and recording them for posterity. Or interrogating them, something I imagined myself doing as a server replaced the chef’s most satisfying ceviche — rockfish strewn with an orchard of citrus and buttery avocado, and appropriately electric — with Cornish hen and sliced plantains splayed across an inky pool of black mole. Tablemates and I couldn’t decide which was more dispiriting: the hen that surrendered all its moisture to the grill, or the sauce with none of the complexity one expects of a proper mole. Chocolate dominated this one. A bottle of American plonk from the tiny wine list didn’t drown any sorrows. Note to the owners: Mexico makes worthy wines. Seek some out.
The front bar, separated by a half-wall of laser-cut concrete blocks that doubles as a food ledge overlooking the dining room, is decorated with a pink neon sign promoting churros. Come dessert, we signed on for the confection — and soon regretted the decision. The sugar-sprinkled fingers of fried dough are almost as hard as pencils, not the crisp-soft wands so much of the competition manages to produce. Sadder still is the sugar shock — the menu calls it a banana mezcal tart — combining hard fruit and a crust that could double as armor.
Some good news: Sparrow, among the founders of Urbano 116, says he got word about the constrictive booths. The problem should be fixed by now.
Glass half empty: On my last visit, the gratis smoked salsa came to the table so hot, steam drifted off the dip. A mistake? Whatever, I’m tired of counting. Urbano 116 makes way too many of them for my taste.
Urbano 116 (Satisfactory) 116 King St., Alexandria. 571-970-5148. urbano116.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Dinner appetizers $6 to $16, entrees $17 to $28.
Sound check: 82 decibels / Extremely loud.