Plentiful light seafood offerings at Huachinango

Terry Kirt
Plentiful light seafood offerings at Huachinango Terry Kirts The signature red snapper at Huachinango. It’s not hard to see the cultural makeup of Indianapolis is changing. The mere fact that 20,000 people muscled downtown last Monday for a rally on U.S. immigration policy makes it clear Indy’s foreign-born population is no longer a quiet anomaly in a mainly white metropolis. Indeed, recent estimates suggest Marion County has started to lose many of its indigenous citizens — if largely to Hamilton County — and would be shrinking without a steady influx of international residents. While uprooting can require sacrifices, few immigrants will part entirely with their native foods. That this city can provide at least some of the culinary experiences these folks are familiar with is no small part of Indy’s appeal. We’re doing pretty well on that account with new markets in just about every quadrant and restaurants offering more than merely Americanized Mexican and Chinese. But we’ve got a way to go toward understanding the intricacies of some of the world’s great cuisines. Evidence that we’re on the verge of some tasty changes is Huachinango, which, for better or worse, has inherited the space of Asia One, a onetime super-authentic Malaysian restaurant that made concession after concession to local tastes until it finally gave up. Now, Huachinango is trying to change ideas about what Mexican cuisine can be, and in less than a month, it’s already drawing surprising numbers. But while Huachinango has upscale pretensions, its clientele have their own ideas about what the place should be. They’ve turned the restaurant into a downright raucous spot for family dinners. Call it colorful, call it rowdy, call it a hard place to enjoy a quiet meal, Huachinango fills on weekend nights with diners chattering into cell phones, well-dressed folks who’ve brought their neighbors and friends and a rare table of foodies hoping to expand their gastronomic sensibilities ever farther. A coat of deep red paint, a spiffy little corner bar offering some fairly stiff but tasty margaritas and menu items upwards of $27 give a sense of what Huachinango is aiming for. But a portable radio playing in the corner and, later, overhead speakers booming loud dance numbers made the place hardly intimate. On the night we stopped in, kids slurped Cokes from straws in glass bottles. A wide-eyed boy wandered over to offer us a card for his family’s business. Construction workers just off their shifts downed beer from glasses garnished with shrimp while they joked with the waiters. The place is still working out a number of kinks. Prices on the menu might not be what you’ll pay on your bill, and the waitstaff, though friendly, may have its own ideas about what you should eat. Our meal could have been subtitled “The Case of the Missing Salad.” An “in-house” Caesar salad we ordered, dreaming of the original from Tijuana, never arrived, even though we insisted we still wanted it at the end of the meal. While Huachinango is a city in the Puebla state of Mexico, the word translates as “red snapper.” Thus, while the eatery’s sign mentions both “mar” (sea) and “tierra” (turf), a full two-thirds of Huachinango’s menu is devoted to seafood, often in pretty surprising preparations. The seemingly random order and pricing of items on the menu, however, make choosing a bit difficult. Don’t expect a basket of chips just to arrive at your table. We had to ask for seemingly absent guacamole, though it was quite creamy and clearly made to order. Among the things we did get, the surf and turf “Ajillo” style ($14.99) was a big platter of fat shrimp with tender chicken, beef and plenty of garlic surrounded by rice. Carne Guisado ($10.95 on the menu) was more like dishes at other Mexican joints with smoky sirloin tips in an unctuous sauce with more jalapeños than meat. Rice, beans and chunky mashed potatoes accompanied. Promised tortillas, however, didn’t arrive; instead, a basket of warm bread seemed another classy substitution. Still, we wanted tortillas. By far the highlight of the meal was the Yucatan-style Huachinango alla Talla ($24.55), one of five preparations of red snapper. A full snapper came butterflied with its flaky meat filling the plate. An intriguingly light, delicious marinade of bitter orange juice, dried chiles and achiote, a brilliant orange-yellow flavoring made from annatto seeds, was more a glaze than a sauce. Here, a side of steamed vegetables all too reminiscent of “California blend” made a rather insipid accompaniment. Fortunately, the snapper was good enough on its own. Perhaps another sophisticated detail, Huachinango offers only bananas Foster for dessert. But with somewhat cold bananas, slightly soupy ice cream and a hidden dollop of caramel underneath, this was neither refined nor authentic. As the place got increasingly louder, we strolled out hoping that by the time we came back this new experience in Mexican food would be more polished — but the customers no less lively. Huachinango 7904 N. Michigan Road 317-824-1600 Hours: Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday: 3:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Food : 3.5 Stars Atmosphere : 3 Stars Service : 3 Stars

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