I have a hypothesis about Mexican food that's served me well over the years. It goes like this: the cheaper the Mexican food, the better it is. The corollary is also true. Expensive Mexican food is seldom very good.
Now, Mexican food is one of the world's great cuisines with a history, nuance and complexity that's right up there with French and Chinese. It can be dressed up and made sophisticated, but for me, the humble, indigenous roots of Mexican food and simple deliciousness of corn, chiles and beans need little artifice or embellishment. There is no better expression of Mexican food than a dish made with fresh corn tortillas, a few bits of well caramelized meat, a spoonful of salsa and perhaps a little diced yellow onion and a scattering of chopped cilantro. Of course, I'm talking about the taco.
The lowly taco is the highest expression of Mexican cuisine. And by taco I don't mean a plate-hogging, shredded-lettuce, cheddar-cheese and sour-cream-sodden mess. I mean a beer-coaster-sized fresh tortilla topped with a judicious scattering of grilled meat and a dribble of salsa. Two bites and it's gone. Your shirt stays clean, and you've still got room to enjoy a few more.
With my hypothesis in hand, I set my sights on Napa's five-month-old Cielito Lindo. The restaurant stands next to Ubuntu, high temple of artful vegetable cuisine, and maybe the owners felt compelled to create a menu that goes beyond standards like enchiladas and chile rellenos. Cielito Lindo describes itself as "unique Mexican food," and while there are many familiar dishes on the menu, several items cross over into modern Mexican cuisine, a land of promise and peril.
The dining room is bright and warm, with a big window looking out on Main Street that catches the afternoon sun. Mexican-inspired pop art and old photos hang on the walls. It's a good-looking place that fits right in with downtown Napa's upwardly mobile dining scene.
Entrées range from $16 to $23, cheap by Napa standards, but worrisome when applied to my cheaper-is-better theory. And that theory held true: the big-ticket items missed the mark, but the menu is strewn with little low-priced gems. Like the tacos.
It was word of Cielito Lindo's tacos that drew me to the restaurant in the first place, and they do not disappoint. The braised pork-belly tacos (two for $8) are outstanding. Fresh-pressed corn tortillas cradle a powerfully delicious hunk of blistered, juicy pork. The pink pickled onion and cilantro on top deftly counter the porcine richness.
I'm a fan of octopus paired with the sweet, smoky bite of guajillo chiles, but when the duo turns up in a taco ($8.50), the octopus lacks its characteristic meatiness. Better are the battered shrimp tacos ($8.50), a bit oily but good rolled up with a cucumber and cilantro aioli and shredded cabbage.
Next to the pork-belly taco, my favorite dish is the diver scallop ceviche ($9). Ceviche often goes too heavy on the lime, leaving only the flavor of the citrus and texture of the seafood. Here, the buttery scallops are delicately marinated in lime and dabbed with horseradish to great effect. The lime is a background flavor, while the rich shellfish and hot bite of the horseradish do a little jig in the foreground. The delicately fried, garlic-spiked shrimp empanada is another small but mighty delicious dish ($9).
Disappointment comes with the double digits on the menu. "Famous Ethelia's Ancho Chile Relleno" ($16) is advertised as a chile stuffed with shrimp, corn and cheddar-ancho sauce, but what I got was a mound of cheesy, sautéed onions with barely detectable bits of shrimp and corn. The pescado con porro ($20), a pan-roasted halibut, makes a run at high style with a leek-tomatillo salsa and jicama, spinach and red bell pepper salad in a ginger-cucumber vinaigrette, but in spite of the fireworks going on around the plate, the fish itself was dry and rather dull.
A notch above is the "arrachera and bone marrow duo" ($21), a less than tender piece of grilled flank steak with two rather salty specimens of marrow filled bones.
Desserts are mixed. The chocolate and flan cake ($6) tasted like it had been in the refrigerator for too long. Better is the plain flan ($6), atypical in that that it's made with cream cheese, so it's not a silky custard but more like a cheesecake.
This being a family-owned and -operated restaurant, service is knowledgeable and attentive. Questions about how I liked my meal were asked with a real interest in the answer. When I said that I found the octopus tacos too fishy, the kitchen promptly sent out the shrimp tacos at no charge. Little things like that mean a lot. And at Cielto Lindo, the little, lesser-priced things generally taste best, too.