by Sam Gugino
Every two weeks, Chestnut Hill resident and food critic Sam Gugino will review a restaurant in the area and offer wine advice for those who intend to dine there.
While regional distinctions within Chinese and Italian cooking have become quite common, Mexican cuisine has been somewhat behind the curve, at least in our region. But the four-month-old Tamarindos in Flourtown (replacing the one in Blue Bell) gives us a glimpse of regional Mexican fare with Yucatan inspired dishes.
Unfortunately, inspiration on the menu doesn’t always translate into execution on the plate at Tamarindos (named for the tamarind fruit tree). This is particularly true for seafood, which should be the restaurant’s strong suit given the Yucatan Peninsula’s proximity to the Caribbean.
Though the fried calamari had fine flavor and just the right amount of heat from jalapeno and chipotle chilies, the texture was limp and soggy. Grilled octopus was tender and pleasantly charred but needed something more. Perhaps a crisp salsa instead of the bed of “creamy” potatoes, which tasted like the tepid beginnings of tomorrow’s breakfast home fries.
The disappointment with seafood continued with the shrimp enchiladas entree, which consisted of tiny, tasteless shrimp swathed in a pasty goat cheese sauce. However, the grilled swordfish came out moist with a fresh, chile-spiked mango salsa.
The menu did describe the duck tacos as “crispy,” but I didn’t think it meant a deep-fried eggroll. Something more lightly fried would have done justice to the savory meat filling, beautifully seasoned with tamarind sauce. One-note samba might be the best description of the roasted corn and poblano pepper soup that was mostly poblano and little corn.
Skirt steak, ubiquitous in Tex-Mex fajitas, is given more respect here. Grilled medium rare as ordered (tricky, since skirt steak is thin) it came with a malty mole sauce and was the best dish of the night. The hefty grilled pork chop was cooked perfectly pink as ordered and coated with a tangy, satiny guajilla pepper sauce. Unlike the octopus, the potatoes under the pork were delicious, mixed with creamy spinach and a pasila sauce.
Only two desserts were offered, though there were more, I later found out from owner Fernando Sauri. The ever present and rarely inspiring flan delivered on both expectations. Caramel-filled crepes with ice cream were only marginally better.
The dessert snafu was not the only service blemish. Failing to give prices for specials until asked for each one! – is a pet peeve I’m sure I share with many. Worse – and more of a kitchen complaint – was not bringing everyone’s food (appetizers and entrees) to the table at the same time.
With hard surfaces all around and throngs of chatty patrons waiting for tables—Tamarindos doesn’t take reservations—decibel levels rose substantially when the restaurant filled up. But in response to customer complaints, Sauri recently installed noise reducing wall panels.
While Tamarindos deserves credit for showcasing Yucatecan cuisine, that praise doesn’t make up for cooking and service that need more focus.
Tamarindos, 726 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, 215-619-2390. Reservations only for parties of 6 or more. Cards accepted. Lunch, Tuesday – Friday. Dinner, Tuesday – Sunday. Dinner entrees $16.95 to $29.95
Though a BYOB establishment, Tamarindo does offer a respectable complimentary margarita. For those bringing their own, Latin wines – which essentially means Chile or Argentina – offer ample choices, including some varieties you may not have heard of.
Chile does a fine job with Sauvignon Blanc. Leyda, Leyda Valley 2014 (Code 33913, $9.99) is crisp, with good varietal character including classic grapefruit notes. Also try Cono Sur San Antonio Valley Organic 2015 (Code: 47194, $11.99). Torontes, an obscure grape from Galicia in Spain, has become Argentina’s signature white wine. Gouguenheim Momentos del Valle La Rioja 2014 (Code: 72624, $8.99) is good producer. Also try Zolo Argentina 2014 (Code: 72596: $13.99). But don’t overchill or you’ll mute the lovely floral aromas.
Malbec, once popular in Bordeaux, has become the red wine for which Argentina is known. While there are a number of good ones available, consider instead Tikal Patriota Red Blend Mendoza 2013 (Code: 49555, $19.99) a mix of Malbec and Bonarda, the latter a seldom-made wine in its native Northwest Italy. The Tikal is smooth and rich with a good acid balance.
Carmenere, another old Bordeaux varietal, has found a home in Chile. Koyle Colchagua Valley Gran Reserva 2012 (Code: 33972, $10.99) is somewhat lighter and crisper than most versions, though quite delightful. For a bigger Carmenere, try the Casas del Bosque Rapel Reserva 2013 (Code: 72427, $11.99)
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator magazine columnist.