A Mexican eatery in Highlandtown offers affordable authentic fare
Mi Viejo Pueblito lights up a gray stretch of Conkling Street like a red and yellow rose growing from a crack in the sidewalk.
OK, maybe this gaudily colored Mexican restaurant isn't quite that poetic, but if the outside doesn't catch your eye (and there's little chance it won't), the inside will. A never-ending loop of salsa music makes the already electric yellow and blue walls seem to pulsate. Fuschia-colored petunias tumble from indoor window boxes; lacy paper placemats hang like bunting from the ceiling; a rainbow of bottled sodas on the juice bar glows like a screen of Lite Brites.
"Take a seat where you are most comfortable," invites the hostess (who is also the evening's server) pointing to tables with serape-like placemats. Not a problem, because the restaurant is empty. Maybe it's because it's 8 o'clock on a Wednesday night. Maybe it's because one of two televisions shows infomercials for toenail fungus over and over (the other is tuned to Cinelatino--when is the last time you saw The Milagro Beanfield War?). Maybe because there's a bigger business in take-out (or breakfast and lunch which the restaurant serves), or that folks don't think of Highlandtown yet as a destination for Latino food. Or maybe it's because the word just isn't out yet that Mi Viejo Pueblito is a real find for affordable authentic Mexican food. Consider that last task done.
Mi Viejo Pueblito offers a full menu of mole and menudo, sandwiches and steaks, tacos and burritos in generous servings. Some English (but more Spanish) is spoken, and even empty, the restaurant manages to convey a warm, convivial atmosphere through kind service (which got a little stretched with the addition of several customers later in the evening) and simple, decent food. It's the kind of place that could attract regulars, I think, particularly folks wanting to take advantage of the restaurant's free Wi-Fi.
But perhaps the most striking part of the Mi Viejo Pueblito experience is the number of small bowls of sauces, each slightly different, that dot the table by the end of a meal. Salsa rojo arrives at the table with a basket of chips fresh from the fryer. Is there a green salsa, too, someone asks? There is, and it's tight with tomatillos and jalapeños and not for the faint of heart. More salsas arrive with an order of soft tacos ($8.99) garnished with a pretty bowl of radishes carved into crowns, a sweet touch. The milder green salsa ("more tomatillos and less jalapeño," we're told) is a good foil for the mild tilapia taco; the smoky chipotle and hotter red pair nicely with the strips of carne asada.
Even though one of three chicken enchiladas on the "MVP" plate ($10.99) comes with mole, the specialty of the owners' native Puebla, our server brings a sample that everyone can try. This is pretty heavenly stuff--smooth, deceivingly spicy, deep brown, and good enough to drink. One wishes the enchiladas were slightly bigger, if only to be able to enjoy more mole.
A bowl of pozole blanco ($10.99), brimming with shredded pork and popcorn-sized hominy, is large enough to bathe in. It, too, comes with a small bowl of sauce--ruddy brown, a little oily, and with the capability of setting your tongue en fuego. What is it? Only the person who makes posole knows, reports the server after checking with the kitchen, and the posole maker is gone for the evening. No matter. The sauce and a handful of chopped onion sets the mild soup ablaze, but a squeeze of lime and a bite of black bean tostada, with a generous slice of avocado, temper the heat.
Although some dishes at Mi Viejo Pueblito come with platanitos (fried plantains), you can also order them as a side ($2). If you like these soft bits of fruit, browned until almost caramelized and still slightly lemony, I suggest you make room. Lovers of tamales ($2 each) will also be pleased with Mi Viejo Pueblito's renditions. If you order the rajas version, the corn husks peel away to reveal light and crumbly corn masa dough wrapped around mild melting cheese and the almost piney heat of a pepper, like the best jalapeño popper you ever had.
Not everything is fabulous here. The botana mixta (appetizer sampler) ($6.99), for example, is heavy on somewhat indistinguishable crispy, flaky nibbles (although the picadita, a soft, pancake-like tortilla smeared with savory beans and sour queso fresco, provides some relief), and the parrilla platter ($18.50 for one) is, true to form, simply a lot of grilled meat (and chicken, ham, and sausage), although that, too, includes queso fresco, sliced thick and grilled.
But all the food we sampled was fresh and brought to the table hot, and the garnishes kept us guessing about what was coming next. More silky guacamole (which had accompanied the parrilla platter)? Another bowl of crema (that came with just about everything)? This feels like generosity, even if it's a small thing, and when we left for the evening, close to 10 p.m,. I was heartened to see several more tables brimming with bowls and conversation.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant has a juice bar, but alcohol may be brought in.