Old Hands, New Directions

Picante! Team Joins Pastry Party

by Warren Rojas

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

I’m a sucker for an oven-fresh empanada.
Which is why I was so extremely disappointed in myself after learning from a reader that a brand spanking new empanada outfit had been doling out hot pockets of protein-filled pastry just a hop, skip and a jump from our locked-in-suburbia office complex.

Except they weren’t/aren’t entirely new. In fact, they’d been a business I had actually visited before. I just hadn’t noticed they’d jumped the gustatory fence and swapped menus on me in the interim.
The oversight was entirely my fault (keeping tabs on all the hospitality-related chaos is my job, after all). But seasoned restaurateur Guillermo Manoatl, founder and operator of the long-standing, full-service Picante! and nascent carry-out, Sweet N Savory—sympathizes, given the seemingly overnight rise of his latest venture.

“We opened Burrito Express in June 2006 to meet the demand for [real] Mexican fare—like menudo, lengua de res, chile de chicharron and barbacoa—for [real] Mexicans. After the economy slowed down, we began to lose customers because these customers are seasonal and nomadic [and] they will go where they can find work,” he says of the flagging sales that sped the death of Burrito Express and ushered in the arrival of the more mainstream Sweet N Savory last winter.

Whereas Burrito Express borrowed heavily from the Picante! model (we’ll get to that in just a moment), Sweet N Savory requires an entirely different tact. Manoatl hired Argentinean chef Mabel Rilloz to expand their entire pastry catalog, tasking her with developing a full complement of empanadas—“We do not specialize in any specific country origin for our empanadas, rather we showcase all of the Latin flavors,” Manoatal suggests—soups, sandwiches and a handful of covetous sweets.

According to Manoatl, customers have, so far, been gobbling up the traditional beef- and chicken-filled varieties like hot cakes, with salmon running a close third.
Those are all solid performers (the salmon is particularly striking and deliciously moist). But there’s so much more to explore.

The corn-queso fresco combo yields a bonanza of sweet, golden niblets swimming in a yolk of marvelously melty cheese.

Crumbled chorizo shares time with zesty peppers and onions in a workhorse of a meal that was savory, hot and, unfortunately, dispatched much too quickly.

So we barreled back onto the cheese bandwagon, tripling our delight (and our cholesterol count, no doubt) with a mozzarella-queso fresco-Monterey Jack-filled number that damn near took our breath away. The warm, flaky dough tried to show off its hard-earned crunch (most noticeable, naturally, along the braided edge), but we remained captivated by the mottled yellow center of multi-cheese soup laced with just a twinge of surreptitious spice.

But we got the best of our favorite empanada worlds while digging into the Mexican choripan sandwich, which layered zesty grilled sausage beneath grilled onions and a weepy hunk of queso fresco, all nestled in a chimichurri-swabbed loaf of toasted French bread.

And while my love for alfajores is well documented, my heart currently belongs to the morenita: a crumbly, shortbread-like cookie wrapped around a wheel of magnetic dulce de leche, all dipped in milk chocolate and chilled (the frosty chocolate shell is crucial).

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

Photo: Jonathan Timmes

Across the way at Picante, the hits keep coming. But so, too, do a few misses.

Most dishes want not for two things: underlying hot peppers—Picante deploys guajillo, pasilla, ancho, mulato, cascabel, costeno, jalapeno, poblano, serrano, chipotle, crushed red and cayenne peppers at will—and rivers of queso blanco.
An order of alambres summons cubed steak, crumbled bacon, mixed bell peppers, onions and mushrooms smothered in the latter, the savory mix virtually begging to be scooped up with the accompanying tortillas. Sprinkling a bit of the house salsa into the mix adds some welcome acid to the equation.

The beef-filled chile relleno was more of a mixed bag. The surrounding chile pepper was limp and bland (no heat whatsoever), and was not helped at all by a coating that arbitrarily slid off the oily skin. The filling had some spunk, more so because of the flashes of berry-like tang contributed by dried fruit than the featured protein.

Corn meal “cups” (really just baked corn tortillas with slightly raised edges) overflowing with shredded chicken, feisty tomatillo sauce, shredded lettuce, mountains of salty, crumbled queso got us back into the spirit of things.

The signature albondigas, giant meatballs laced with fresh mint, chipotle and guajillo peppers, roll around in a sea of chipotle-fueled spice (the smoked pepper pulls double duty in this case, working from within the meatball itself and endowing the surrounding tomato-based sauce with some much-needed extra oomph).

Tacos al carbon was my favorite. A mass of savory pork, stained yellow from the proprietary marinade and turbocharged with juice and spice from slow-cooking, cascades out of the packed-to-the-gills corn shell. No extraneous filler (lettuce, tomatoes, pico) to pick out. Just pure pork escorted by a side of extra creamy, fatty guacamole.

Depending on the day, the mole can be a knockout or a letdown. At its finest, the complex and mysterious chocolate sauce—“Where I come from (Tlaxcala) … you can go from house to house, and town to town, and you will find that all the moles that you will taste will be different, one from the other,” Manoatl predicts, rattling off a list of authentically Mexican peppers (pasilla, ancho, guajillo) and specialty ingredients (anisette, cinnamon, nuts, almonds and raisins, among others) required to capture Picante’s signature flavor—proves truly provocative, teasing the palate with essences of bittersweet chocolate, robust coffee and brilliant spices. When it’s off—or, rather, when it appears that the kitchen cooked the underlying chicken breasts totally separately and only spooned the mole mixture over the dish at the last possible minute, the two entities failing to connect on any level—you might be left wondering what all the fuss is about. (In that case, hammer away at the refried beans. They are always spot on).

Pescado a la veracruzana, on the other hand, never failed to disappoint. The centerpiece filets of marinated grouper were always generously sized and captivatingly sauced, the naturally mild and incredibly tender fish submerged in a lake of tomato sauce bolstered by garlic, olives, capers (scene-stealers) and myriad hot peppers.

Picante’s desserts tend to adhere to the tres leches mold. So if you want a morenita, you’ll have to scoot on down the road.

“Our two stores are completely independent; we do not plan on mixing the menus,” Manoatl asserts.
The old divide and conquer plan.
Buena suerte.

 

Sweet n’ Savory
14502-I Lee Road, Chantilly; 703-378-3535; (www.sweetnsavorynow.com)

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Prices: Average entree: under $12 ($).

Picante
14511 Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, Suite B, Chantilly; 703-222-2323; (www.picantetherealtaco.com)

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$).

(September 2011)

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