One bite into the tacos al pastor at Los Poblanos, and my husband and I looked up at one another in amazement. Whoa, this is really good. Tender plump bites of orange-hued pork shoulder, coated with ground chiles and herbs, mixed with bits of sweet, juicy pineapple. The flavors melded, cooked together to just the right moment. Warm, soft homemade corn tortillas. The pork topped with minced fresh raw onions and cilantro.
The exterior didn’t prepare us for food made with such care. I mean, I love discovering a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall. When I noticed a handmade sign for Los Poblanos hanging outside what was still at that point Hubba Luncheonette, in a dingy little strip mall in Norwalk (cattycorner to Penzy’s), I took a quick left turn. The transformation from American breakfast place and luncheonette to Mexican, in terms of décor, at that point was shiny tourist posters of the Puebla region of Mexico. Since then it’s brightened up. The walls are painted cheerful contrasting colors, orange, green and red. The place is small and simple, with four booths, and a couple tables for two.
The chefs working behind the counter, noticed our reactions to the food, and smiled. They smiled again when my husband and I returned the next day. The complimentary chips were thin, crisp, freshly fried. The thick, bright green salsa was so good I could eat it with a spoon. The habanero sauce had a smokey heat.
I looked at the menu more in depth. Mushroom soup? Don’t often see that on Mexican restaurant menus. It arrived bubbling in a hot clay bowl. Beneath the chili-infused homemade chicken broth, the bowl was full of thick slices of sautéed mushrooms, strips of meaty, green poblano peppers, and cubes of potatoes, skin on. Grilled bread rested on the edge of the bowl. The soup was hearty and filling, and had layers of flavor.
Mole poblano is the most famous dish of the Puebla region of Mexico. It’s usually served with turkey. One of the specials on the colorful chalk menu was mole poblano enchiladas with chicken. The dark brown sauce had a raisiny depth, with a mellow, slow-cooked blend of spices, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and a hint of dark chocolate. The chicken was poached-tender. The black beans on the side were homemade, soft, not mushy, and probably cooked with a bone that had given them that extra gelatinous and meaty boost of flavor.
We were in heaven. Chef Ramon knew he had happy customers. “Good to see you my friend,” he said to my husband, on our second visit. “I’m glad you like my food.”
We started talking to the owner, Juan Bautista and his wife Myra. “Nobody has these recipes,” he said “This is the real Mexican cooking. We take the time to make it very good.” Bautista and Ramon have cheffed in some the best-known restaurants of Fairfield County. They know technique, and they can cook a range of cuisines. Now, they want to show the food of Puebla, its “gastronomy culture and tradition with recipes and ingredients typical of the state.”
Bautista told us next time we should try his tamarind ribs. We did, and they were amazing, tender pork on the bone, draped in a glossy sauce uniting sweet, sour, spicy, fruity flavors into lick-your-plate-clean deliciousness. Chiles rellenos was a special one day, two wide packets of poblano peppers and cheese, dipped in a light batter, fried, and then covered with a well-simmered tomato sauce that held just a whisper of heat. The cheese was queso fresco, a soft rather than melty cheese. In other words, this isn’t Mex-Tex and forget about Monterey Jack. With rice and beans, the chiles rellenos were filling, and I ate one and I took the other home, and enjoyed it for dinner. No doubt, in late August-early September chiles en nogada will appear on the menu. The peppers stuffed with meat and fruit is a traditional dish of Puebla, and uses seasonal walnuts and pomegranates.
On another visit, Ramon was sitting at booth with his family. Bautista brought him a sizzling platter, smelling of wine sauce. We couldn’t see what it was, but both men had big smiles on their faces, one proud to have cooked it, the other pleased to eat it.
I tried the pozole. This rich red-chili-infused soup comes with chicken or pork. I chose pork, and it was thick with meat and hominy, those pale, plump, soft, skinless resuscitated kernels of corn. (By the way, I read recently that this ancient method of storing and reviving corn, drying it, then soaking it in lime water, adds calcium to the corn.)
Of course, Los Poblanos’s menu has flautas, fajitas, quesadillas, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, huraches, and nachos. I’m intrigued by the house specials. La Carne del Patron -- steak with poblano peppers and shrimp in pumpkin flower sauce. Pollo borracho, chicken sautéed with onions, green pepper, jalapeño, pico de gallo and tequila sauce. Carnitas Estilo Michoacan – “from grandfather’s table” –pork carnitas with guacamole, pico de gaillo. Francisco Villa el Centauro -- Pan sautéed red snapper filet with shrimp in garlic sauce.
Hubba Luncheonette’s long-time customers can still get an early morning bacon-egg-and-cheese (and burgers and dogs) at Los Poblanos. But the breakfast offerings on the new menu are more interesting. Chilaquiles – fried tortillas with beans, red or green sauce, cheese (and sunny side up eggs or chorizo). And nine egg dishes. The “Tarascos” serves two eggs up on a bed of ham, cheese, pasilla chili sauce, avocado and beans. Huevos Tirados are scrambled eggs with jalepenos and cheese. These are hearty breakfasts for those who need to fuel up.
If atmosphere and cool scenes are your thing, Los Poblanos won’t be your place. But if eating really good Mexican food prepared by friendly people who love what they’re doing, is, Los Poblanos will be your new favorite Mexican joint.
Owner: Juan Bautista
212 Westport Ave., Norwalk, CT 06851, 203-286-8482. They also do catering and delivery.
Warning. They didn’t have AC the last time I was there on a hot summer day.
Parking is limited in the front, but there’s extra parking behind the building.
Hours: Monday – Saturday 7 a.m to 9 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.