The enchilada question

They say that one can find good Mexican food just about anywhere in California, be it a taco stand on the corner or a fancy Oaxacan restaurant in a snazzy part of town. Whether this is true for all 58 counties, especially those that might as well be in Oregon, I do not know. But in Sacramento, there is no shortage of Mexican fare—from the traditional to the heretical.

That’s not to say there’s a glut of Mexican food in the area. Hardly. Sushi and Thai appear more ubiquitous in many pockets of Sacramento. To prove that Mexican cuisine can proliferate with the best of them, Vientos Mexican Grill and Bar has opened a second location.

A second? Who knew it had a first?

Vientos I is in the Greenhaven/Pocket area. Vientos II sits in Town and Country Village where the old Aida’s Restaurant used to be (and before it, the old Aldo’s Restaurant). Whereas Aida’s gambled on the concept of fine dining, à la the Titanic, Vientos attempts something more subdued. It’s Chevy’s meets Olvera Street, if you will.

The color scheme reflects the cheery part of the spectrum—fruity oranges, purples and reds—which projects an ostentatious but not garish look. The lighting, much of it accomplished by ornate chandeliers from the Aida’s era, aids the vision a little too much (i.e., you can’t drown yourself in three margaritas without anyone noticing). Aztec-like symbols and artwork splash character on the walls, and a stylish, three-tiered fountain inhabits the entryway.

Though the feel of Vientos drastically departs from ghosts of restaurants past, remnants endure. The wavelike arches along the banquette that denote each intimate seating area; the exposed brick along one wall, also curved for effect—these are familiar touches that remain.

Artistic flare and nods to its predecessors aside, there is a part of Vientos that feels a bit like a gringo joint. The lack of spiciness in the salsas (though they were fresh tasting and quite good), the lack of oomph in the dishes, the Caucasian-ness of the employees and the clientele. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to use a Seinfeld-ism.

The menu straddles the line between simple, old-style Mexican fare like the offerings at Luis’s Mexican Food, Vallejo’s restaurants and 524; and the nouveau stylings of restaurants like Centro Cocina Mexicana. Simple two- and three-item combinations involving beef, chicken and cheese are available, as are chicken breasts with mole sauce and salmon tacos. Other than menudo on Sundays, the menu doesn’t hold a lot of adventurous body parts, such as brain or tongue. It even offers some distinctly non-regulation dishes, such as penne pesto and fettuccini Alfredo.

As tempting as the mole and salmon tacos sounded, it was the basics we were after. The character of a place can be determined, more often than not, by a single classic dish. This dish is the deciding factor for every diner, be she a simpleton or a sophisticate. If a restaurant can do that one dish well, the diner will have the confidence to order anything else on the menu. In Thai cuisine, the dish is pad Thai. In Chinese, it’s pot stickers. In Italian, it’s (and people will disagree) eggplant parmigiana. These are the dishes with which chefly types can show us that they really know their stuff. With Mexican, I submit to you, the dish is enchiladas. The enchilada will tell all.

The enchiladas verdes, listed under the specials, came with a choice of chicken or cheese. We chose the chicken. The enchiladas arrived three to a plate, with a modest draping of verde sauce (made of green chili and tomatillos) underneath a smothering of cheese. Healthy amounts of shredded white meat filled thick, chewy corn tortillas.

The travesty of it all was that the chicken, though cooked to tenderness, was liquidy and bland—fit for a small child or an ulcerous adult. The lively verde sauce was spread too thin, and the cheese played too heavy a hand. To top it off, the side salad that came with the enchiladas was overdressed for the occasion, with too much blue-cheese dressing, and quickly warmed by its hot neighbor. Interestingly, the sour cream that decorated the enchiladas in waves looked so similar to the dressing that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

The two-way combination of a chicken tostada and a chicken burrito fared little better. Disappointingly, the same bland, shredded white meat was used throughout, with no variation. Likewise, a melty Monterey Jack (or a close cousin) topped both the tostada and the burrito. The beans and rice that accompanied the combination were heavy, rather standard affairs.

Though the enchilada’s story failed to inspire us to try more venturesome, expensive dishes, admittedly, some curiosity remains. Vientos, it turns out, serves a Sunday breakfast. Who can resist a Mexican breakfast? The menu includes favorites like chilaquiles, chorizo and eggs, and menudo (a tripe, chili and hominy soup that reputedly is a classic hangover cure). It may be a while before we return to Vientos, but I have a feeling that it’s not the last we’ve seen of this enchilada.