Fresh flavors, phrases at Adobo Grill
Huitlacoche. Tylaycoyos. Enchipotlados. Just when you’d learned to pronounce “chipotle” and “empanada” at your corner Mexican restaurant, along comes Adobo Grill with a lot more multisyllabic words to confound your tongue. It turns out that “real” Mexican food requires plenty of italicized Spanish (even ancient Uto-Aztecan) words, tableside presentations and double-digit prices. Or does it? Wasn’t that meal you got for $5 at the taqueria last week “authentic”? Wasn’t it tasty?
Of course, great Mexican food can be had for cheap and without a degree in Mesoamerican linguistics. But a few zealous restaurateurs, most from Chicago, figured they could go beyond, far beyond, the typical experience at Tex-Mex eateries, burrito joints and even regional Mexican-owned restaurants increasingly common in American cities. Following the lead of Oklahoma-born Rick Bayless, the guru of south-of-the-border gastronomy who, in 1987, opened his landmark Frontera Grill, these culinary revisionists have logged months on research missions through Oaxaca, Michoacá and Veracruz sourcing ingredients and learning techniques with the hopes of serving a “new” style of Mexican cuisine to diners willing to pay for it in uncharacteristically spiffy digs.
But is this upscale, aggressive approach worth it? What does it gain for the average diner trying to get an original and, most of all, delicious meal? At Adobo Grill, in the old Something Different location on 82nd Street, customers get a vibrant venue for eating their papas enchorizados and charro beans. Walls bathed in deep oranges and blues, striking black lacquered trim and colorful paintings of severe figures, including iconoclast Frieda Kahlo, give the place a decidedly sophisticated air. Perhaps because or despite this, diners have been cramming the quite spacious outdoor patio since the place opened in April. Mexican food still connotes warm and festive to local diners, and if you can tune out the Castleton traffic, the patio is a great place to sip a margarita. Things are still comfortable inside, but music on two separate visits was jarringly loud.
Given that Adobo already has two locations in Old Town and Wicker Park in Chicago, it’s clear at least a few savvy Chicagoans have appreciated its approach to cuisine. In Indy, Adobo definitely offers flavors you won’t get at other Mexican restaurants. In that sense, a meal at Adobo is always fresh and instructive. That huitlacoche is actually corn must, a fungal delicacy some term “Mexican truffles.” It lends a mushroomy earthiness to a corn flan on the vegetarian plate ($14.95), a quartet of dishes that has to be one of the most original meatless offerings at any Indy restaurant. The plate also includes budin azteca, a rich “pie” of tortillas layered with goat cheese, topped with black bean salsa. Unfortunately, a tamal colada with mushrooms enchipotlados (“in a chipotle sauce”) is a little too solid and dense, but a mango and jicama salad is quite light and refreshing.
Adobo’s menu is delightfully top-heavy with antojitos or “little cravings.” You can — and should — make a meal of them. Much buzz surrounds the guacamole ($7.50), which, though the menu says is “prepared tableside,” was actually concocted at a nearby station on both occasions. The guac is straightforward, chunky and fresh — and made to your heat specifications. It’s great with a bracingly strong margarita ($6.95), also shaken tableside, or a tequila mojito ($7.50), expertly mixed one night but full of grainy sugar the next. A frequently changing menu allowed both for some quite sweet crab-stuffed empanadas made with a plantain-based dough in a light avocado sauce and those aforementioned “tlaycoyos” ($6.95), thick, oval masa pastries stuffed with black beans and topped with smoky grilled beef tips. Ceviches include a very fresh shrimp “cocktail” ($9.50) with a definite citrus tang — if a slightly soupy sauce — served with plantain chips.
Among entrées, two dishes offered plenty of contrasting — if a bit unbalanced — flavors. A succulently tender pork tenderloin from the specials came with a dark sauce packing plenty of cinnamon and sautéed spinach with enough garlic to scare off a vampire. The grilled half chicken ($14.95) (hooray for the bones!) was quite sweet under a tamarind-chipotle glaze. But with a creamy tomatillo guacamole, a molcajete salsa and tasty charro beans, as well as a side of roasted potatoes with chorizo ($2.95), our informative, chatty waitress’ favorite on our second visit, this dish was a powerhouse of flavors and textures. Overall, service is expedient and informed.
Desserts strike the most discordant note at Adobo. They’re neither very authentic nor successfully executed. A chocolate tamal is basically a molten chocolate cake — a bit like brownie batter — in a corn husk. The tres leche cake ($6.95) is quite dry despite the promise of “three milks.” Rum soaked strawberries and pecans on the bottom can’t really save the grainy sponge cake. Thankfully, the place, despite its mini-chain distinction, seems a jovial work in progress, and our smiling waitress exited to the kitchen with a suggestion for how to make the dish better — and even more authentic.
4939 E. 82nd St.
Monday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m.Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-11 p.m.
Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Food: 3.5 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars