Thanks to the influx of Latino people fueling both the demand and the supply sides for Mexican cooking, New Orleanians now find taco trucks parked at major intersections, packs of tortillas prominently displayed at convenience stores and a bustling business at the area's taquerias. Despite the surge in availability, however, the uniting factor for Mexican-style cooking in New Orleans remains -- as always -- fast, cheap food served in casual digs and more or less dependent on the tortilla.
The gleaming exception is Taqueros Coyoacan, the Uptown restaurant where chef/owner Guillermo Peters uses some of the same culinary vocabulary as taquerias, but in radically different ways.
Before the storm, Taqueros Coyoacan operated as two restaurants under one roof. Taqueros operated on the first floor as a casual, mid-priced taqueria and was the dressed-up successor to the restaurant Peters ran for years in Kenner. On the second floor, however, Peters ran Coyoacan and served dishes of octopus, venison, lobster crepes, steaks and ceviche. This was high-end cuisine, priced as such, and abetted by upscale service, right down to tableside presentations. The food was good upstairs and downstairs, but the public reception was lukewarm. A lot of people told me they found the dual concept confusing or that they had a hard time paying top dollar for Mexican food, despite its distinctive provenance.
Post-Katrina, the restaurant has emerged as a combination of the best aspects of its former incarnation in one dining room. That's the downstairs one, with the big, open kitchen, the curvy, brass-topped bar and all the decorative wrought iron and gas lamps. At lunch, the kitchen prepares half a dozen dishes, most accompanied by rice, beans and tortillas. This is where the tacos show up, with chicken or shrimp taco plates priced -- like all the other lunch plates -- at $10. At dinner, more of the old Coyoacan emerges. The tables are covered with Mexican cotton tablecloths and the menu presents the ambitious cuisine that is Peters' hallmark.
It is still expensive. When I tell friends that a recent Tuesday night dinner came to $70 per person, I usually get an astonished reply of "for Mexican food?" But the comparison is as misplaced as lumping a ham po-boy together with pompano en papillote because it is all New Orleans food.
Instead of a normal pre-dinner cocktail, this particular meal started with an engine-revving "flight" of three 1-ounce tequila shots. Some of the appetizers that followed were familiar territory, such as a vividly fresh guacamole that was chunky, creamy and well seasoned without being too salty. It combined nicely with an order of equites, which are sauted corn kernels spiced up with jalapenos, red onions and lime juice. The star appetizer though, is the queso fundido -- white cheese, like a mild manchego, griddled to a gently crisp exterior and stuffed with spicy chorizo sausage -- that was gooey without being gross.
Most entrees are priced below $20 now, a reduction from pre-Katrina heights. One exception is the chipotle steak, which proves itself worth the $28 splurge. The very tender filet mignon is stuffed with chile chipotle then placed atop a cheese-covered tortilla. It is smothered in a tomato-chipotle sauce that tasted like a smoky salsa and is further sprinkled with salty, pungent bits of cotija cheese. The elaborate and satisfying dish manages to keep all the different flavors and textures distinct.
Another standout is the chile relleno de mixiote. The chile relleno is a bit like a bell pepper but richer in flavor. Cut into this stuffed version and out spills shredded lamb to mix with fruity, thick blackberry coulis spiked with habanero peppers. A curtain of griddled cheese drapes the pepper without obscuring it and a pecan cream sauce provides mellow little islands in the sea of dark, spicy coulis. Beautifully presented and complex in flavor, it was an unforgettable dish.
Not all the choices fare so well. The chicken mole was worthwhile only for the mole. The chicken breast itself was boneless, skinless and done the disservice of being overcooked and dry. The accompanying sides of black beans and rice were fine, but too commonplace compared to other offerings on the menu. The delicious mole smothering the chicken, however, was rich, wine-dark and smooth. Peters' version still delivers a neat punch of spicy heat, which turns up a second or two after you process the flavor of chocolate.
From the short dessert list, servers especially push the most unusual offering: avocado cheesecake. It is a novelty to be sure, but the result had a pudding-like texture and its bland flavor left me flat. A much better finale is the light, creamy flan with shredded coconut.
Lunch brings options that are more straightforward but still distinctive, like the satisfying roasted pork loin in a tart tomatillo sauce. The albondigas -- or Mexican meatballs -- offer a lesson in cross-cultural resonance, made with pork and beef and bound together with moist grains of rice in a red gravy that looks like Italian tomato sauce but is goosed with the spice and smoky undertones of chipotles.
While the upstairs dining room is used now for private parties, Peters says that by the fall he hopes to have his old Coyoacan concept back in action. Some of that former grandeur will be on display this Wednesday, July 26, when he hosts a special six-course dinner with Spanish wine pairings in the upstairs dining room at a very Coyoacan price of $100 per person.