Tough audience

In the restaurant reviewing trade, the importance of bringing along a good dining companion cannot be overstated. A good dining companion, ideally one with a detailed knowledge of the cuisine at hand, is indispensable when it comes to navigating today’s complex culinary landscape. That’s the theory, anyway. It doesn’t always work out that way, as my recent visit to Centro Cocina Mexicana demonstrated.

When it opened in the mid-1990s, Centro, one of a half-dozen local restaurants owned and operated by Randy Paragary, made quite a splash, combining a fresh, authentic take on regional Mexican cuisine with the hip, festive attitude required to pull the denizens of Midtown out of their darkened caves.

From the vintage Matchless motorcycles displayed in the front window to the tangerine and orange sponge-painted neo-primitive designs that adorn the walls and the tables, not much has changed at Centro. Its bright, festive interior continues to draw a mixture of sharp, pointed urban professionals, threadbare slackers and everyone in between, if the crowd we encountered early on a Friday evening is any indication.

Likewise, the dining fare offered at Centro remains relatively the same: familiar Mexican favorites such as chicken enchiladas, chile rellenos and carnitas prepared with an attention to detail that’s a couple of notches above your average Mexican restaurant, and priced accordingly. Why mess with success, Chef Fred Reyes is probably thinking, and for most people, myself included, the strategy works. But it didn’t wash at all with my dining companion.

I should mention that my dining companion, a full-blooded Native American raised by shamans in a New Mexican pueblo, takes her southwestern cuisine quite seriously. That’s only natural, considering that fresh masa is the stuff her cultural heritage is made of. But not even I was prepared for the outburst that ensued when she looked at the menu and found out we were being charged $5.75 for an order of guacamole and chips.

“Lots of places charge for gwalkamoley,” I said.

“It’s walkamoley. The ‘g’ is silent.”

“I knew that,” I lied. “But you have to admit, it’s good walkamoley.”

“It’s just mashed-up avocados,” she said. “There’s nothing else in it.” Indeed, although the menu advertised guacamole with garlic, white onion and tomato chile, ours was curiously bland, as were the two varieties of salsa, red tomato and green tomatillo, we also received.

“What about these fresh corn tortillas?” I asked. Centro makes its own tortillas, and we had ordered both the soft and crispy versions. I’m particularly fond of the soft ones and their robust, corny taste.

“A tortilla is a tortilla is a tortilla,” she said. “However, I do like these blue stoneware plates.”

It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning, and the fact that our entire meal would be served on blue stoneware offered little solace. My dining companion described her Enchiladas Oaxaquenas—three chicken enchiladas smothered in rich-looking brown mole—as “profoundly boring.” I had to admit that I’ve tasted far more complex and elegant moles than the faint chocolate-tasting sauce offered at Centro.

But I’m a man of simpler tastes, which is why I stick with the carnitas when I go to Centro. With the exception of a few hole-in-the-wall joints on Franklin Boulevard, Centro does deep-fried roasted pork better than anyone in Sacto, and they don’t do anything stupid either, like put rice in your carnitas burrito or something. Just lots of crispy, shredded meat and a little cilantro.

I handed it to my dining companion. She handed me back a stump. Still, she remained unimpressed.

“Isn’t there something good you can say?” I asked as we departed the restaurant.

“Sure,” she said, holding up a blue stoneware saucer. “I love the plates.”

“Well,” I said. “I guess that’s something.”

Like I said, sometimes it pays to bring along someone with a little expertise. And sometimes it doesn’t. Some people just can’t be impressed.