Casual El Senorial stays true to its Mexican heritage
By Dennis R. Getto
Journal Sentinel dining critic
Published: Oct. 10, 2003
Menus aren't the only way to decide what to order at a restaurant. Oftentimes, servers are a great source of information.
So when I had a hard time making a decision at El Senorial, I asked my server for a recommendation.
"You like steak?" he asked.
The first thing that came into my mind was an American-style steak - thick and simply broiled, served with mushrooms or fried onions. I changed that picture quickly as I followed my server's finger toward the words "Bistec con Rajas y Queso" ($8.50) on the menu, described this way: "Chopped steak seasoned with slices of poblano pepper, tomatoes and onions, topped with melted Chihuahua cheese."
I ordered the dish and, as the waiter walked away, I remembered that this kind of steak dish is popular all over Mexico. I thought back to a visit to Oaxaca four years ago, when I watched a butcher at work. He cut a chunk of beef accordion-style then lifted it in a single, glistening slice to hang on a nearby rack. That beef, I learned later, was destined for drying to make a jerky-like product that Oaxacans heat on grills then load onto fresh corn tortillas with grilled onions. Its flavor was good, but chewing it took some effort.
But here at El Senorial, each thin slice of beef offered only a small bit of resistance to the tooth. It had been grilled with onions and long strips of mild poblano peppers that Mexicans call rajas. Tomatoes and onions had been grilled with the meat and peppers to create a thin but rich juice that pooled on my plate. A puffy blanket of white, melted Chihuahua cheese covered the steak, onions and peppers.
I couldn't resist using a fork for the first bite, and was rewarded with the combined flavor of tender beef, sweet grilled onions, mild peppers and chopped Roma tomatoes. I ate the rest Mexican style, loading meat, vegetables and cheese into warm tortillas, rolling them up, and eating them like little Mexican sandwiches.
It was only one of several well-made dishes that I sampled in three recent visits to El Senorial, a casual restaurant that chef and owner Miguel Huerta opened 2 1/2 years ago.
Grill entree for 2
The 50-seat restaurant has the clean look of a well-kept family establishment. There's a rear bar area where, on my visits, a television tuned to a Spanish language station blared. My friends and I cranked our voices up to compete.
That steak dish was great, but the most impressive entree I sampled was a parrillada combination dinner for two ($22.50).
Parrillada dinners are common across Mexico, and involve assorted meats cooked on a flat steel grill first in the kitchen and then over an alcohol burner at the table.
El Senorial's version was piled high with popular Mexican meats - shredded steak, thin cuts of beef ribs with chewy meat between button-sized slices of bone, shreds of pork and pieces of crisp-skinned chicken, all piled with thinly sliced potatoes, fresh cilantro stalks and small, stem-on onions to add sweet crunch when we wanted it.
Beside the grill lay a platter of mildly flavored beans, perfectly cooked Mexican rice, chunky guacamole and the house pico de gallo, a fresh relish of onions, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, lime juice and fresh cilantro. Two freshly blistered hot banana peppers garnished the platter.
My friend and I followed the same procedure with these ingredients as we had with the steaks, customizing each tortilla with an assortment of fillings. The dish struck me as a perfect one to order with friends who could select their preferred ingredients.
Another rewarding dish was El Senorial's rendition of Chicken Mole Poblano ($8.50). Most Americans know one of the interesting details of this dish - that it's made with chocolate. What they don't know is something that I learned from a cooking teacher who grew up in Puebla, the city where the dish was developed: In its finished form, the dish should not have a chocolate flavor.
El Senorial's version passed that test well, and the dish's sweet reddish sauce was so good that I made sure to sop up a good deal of it with tortillas.
Shrimp, hot and cold
Two shrimp dishes scored equally high on my list of El Senorial favorites. A cold Coctel de Camaron ($8.95) had all the right ingredients - sweet shrimp broth, lime juice, cilantro, onions and avocados - and tasted best when we fished the shellfish out and ate them on the saltines supplied. Shrimp fajitas ($11.95) delivered fat shellfish, onion and sweet pepper strips, and tomato chunks sizzling in a light marinade that gave everything a pleasant sweetness. These ingredients tasted best in soft, warm flour tortillas.
Two appetizers struck me as great choices for some of my vegetarian friends. Queso Fundido en Salsa Verde ($4.95) presented us with freshly melted Chihuahua cheese beneath a layer of slightly spicy green tomatillo sauce, which proved a nice foil to the heavier taste of the cheese.
The house nachos ($4.95) mixed refried beans, chopped jalapenos, tomatoes, onions and fresh avocado slices with crisp nachos, all baked beneath more melted Chihuahua cheese. The dish reminded me of the steak, without the flavor of beef and with a lot of pleasant crunch.
For dessert, the house flan ($2.50) turned out to be a light vanilla custard that shimmered on its plate. It was far better than the commercial carrot cake ($2.25).
Service was attentive and helpful at all three meals.
Now if they would only turn the volume down on that television. . . .
* Prices and items may have changed since the publication of this article. *