It is rare that I taste so many dishes in a restaurant with flavors so sunny and fabulous that I wish I were still a restaurant reviewer again.
But this happened a couple of weeks ago, when Elise Maclay, restaurant reviewer for Connecticut magazine, called and said she wanted to try Suzette and Arturo Franco-Comacho's new restaurant, Tacuba, in Branford.
"But wasn't it just a taqueria?" I asked. I would happily go to almost any Mexican restaurant anywhere. I love most Mexican food, even Taco Belle (the taco salad is terrific). On the other hand, Elise, who is one of the most terrific people I know, is one who doesn't care for pizza or the more pedestrian food I sometimes pine for. However, Arturo is a super-hero chef who knows food and knows how to cook, like, well, a super-chef. He owned Roomba and Bespoke in New Haven, Branford's Suburban (which he sold to the owner of Middletown's It's Only Natural) and, as with many other chefs, wanted to do something different.
In his case, it was actually less different, since he was born in Mexico and has been creating Latin American and Caribbean food for years in Connecticut. So, we went to Tacuba and everything we tasted was so way off the chart we couldn't believe it. Two salads, one baby spinach, pomegranate, toasted pepitas, queso fresco and agave nectar-lime dressing, incredible.
The ensalada de fruta blew my mind: watermelon, pineapple, cucumber, jicama, lime juice and dried chiles. At first the flavors were spicy and sour; at second taste, the sweetness of the fruit was heavenly. Ceviche with shrimp and sea scallop ("an old Roomba favorite" the menu says) was gorgeous and luscious, but the lobster arena, sweet corn with lobster, avocado and crèma Mexicana, was hands-down one of the best dishes I have ever eaten. So full, we had to cancel our tacos, but I took one home (tacos al pastor, anchiote pork, pineapple and grilled onions) and ate it later that night.
None of the dishes included guacamole (although one of the ceviches was served with warm chips). I am sure Arturo's guac is better than mine. But here is mine, which isn't bad.
Yield: serves 10 as an appetizer
2 medium-sized tomatoes
5 gorgeous, soft Hass avocados (not the green Florida ones)
one-half cup chopped sweet onions (I use Vidalia when in season)
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
one-quarter cup good salsa (I use Newman's Own, medium hot)
1 medium-sized lime
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (I use a lot of pepper)
one-quarter cup chopped cilantro
cayenne pepper (or hot sauce), to taste
On the cooktop, heat a small pot of water until boiling. Make a cross on the bottom of the tomatoes and drop them into the boiling water. Boil for maybe 15 seconds, then put pot and tomatoes in the sink under the faucet with cold water. When you can touch the tomatoes, remove the skin, core and seeds, then chop them. (I know this sounds like a pain, but you don't want your guac to be watery and you don't want to eat the skin, either.)
Cut each avocado in half lengthwise. Very carefully, hit the pit with the sharp side of a knife, then turn the knife; the pit will come out. Hit the handle of the knife on the side of the skin and the pit will drop out. Use a spoon to take the "meat" of the avocado into a medium side bowl. Mash the avocado with a potato masher until medium chunky (unless you like it more like a puree).
Add the onions and garlic mix with the large spoon. Taste. Add salsa. Taste. Squeeze the lime over the guac. (The lime juice not only adds great taste, but keeps the guac from turning brown.) Taste. Now is the time to add salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt. Taste. Maybe you think it needs more; if so, add more. (Trust me here, the pepper is key here.) When you think it tastes good, add the chopped cilantro. If you want a little cayenne (and I always do), add some, a pinch at a time. Taste.
For two days, under the most blistering of heat, I did what I needed to get done, then went to Westfarms mall, Nordstrom Rack (did you know we have a Rack down the street from Westfarms) and Trader Joe's. The next day I worked, then went to Chico's. One of Chico's salesperson mentioned that she wanted to get Almond Joy ice cream at Hallmark.
That night I made myself a frittata with eggs, sliced tomatoes, niblets from two ears of corn, some parmesan and basil. I felt justified to get some ice cream. But Hallmark doesn't have Almond Joy ice cream. Instead I got a tiny sundae of coconut chip ice cream with hot fudge, whipped cream and a cherry on top. I ate outside, then found a hose to clean my hands and arms. What a treat this was.
Hallmark Drive Inn
113 Shore Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371