Friday, January 25, 2013

Xitomate: New Mexican Comes To Columbia With Real Ambition, Delicious Food, And Fungus

Guacamole at Xitomate (by Jackie)
Xitomate has brought new Mexican to Columbia, and your local food bloggers put on an unintended double-team to get you a first look.

Jackie of La Casa De Sweets actually hit first and enjoyed her meal.  While she was drafting a guest post, burger-mania sent me and Mrs. HowChow to Victoria Gastropub where they had a 25-minute wait on a Monday night.  Those burgers are worth the wait, but we dashed to Xitomate and figured on a burger later this winter.

Xitomate is a sleek modern space that replaced the Donna's on Rte 108 near the intersection with Snowden River Parkway.  Cool lighting.  Striking mural.  A focused, but interesting menu.  And big windows to watch the traffic on Rte 108.  It's early (and the servers are learning), but this could be a new entry into the zone where you get casual vibe, cool decor, a bar, and $12-20 entrees -- the zone like Victoria, Facci, or Royal Taj where you could bring a date or bring the kids.

Jackie actually got the big news from the Xitomate manager:  An Ellicott City location aims to open in September in the shopping center behind Turf Valley.  The owners, who also own Azul 17 in Columbia, plan an Annapolis location as well.

But what about the food?  This almost qualifies as a real restaurant review since Jackie and we lucked out into eating completely different meals.  So let's hear about dinner from La Familia De Sweets, then back to Mrs. HowChow and me eating fungus.
Coming from a Puerto Rican family, we’ve had our share of authentic Latin American cuisine, but it’s pretty hard to find that kind of food when you feel like dining out. Fortunately for us, we decided to try Xitomate, the latest Mexican restaurant to open in Howard County.
Xitomate (pronounced hi-to-ma-te) is as authentic as it gets in terms of Mexican food. The current menu, which is set to expand in the first few weeks of business, according to the manager, offers diners authentic Mexican dishes: ceviches, empanadas, carne asada tacos, mole, and numerous dishes featuring huitlacoche. The dishes are prepared with traditional Mexican ingredients like queso fresco, crema, and a variety of salsas and slaws. Not a big meat-eater? Don’t worry, Xitomate offers a pretty big selection of vegetarian and vegan choices. And I don’t just mean a side order of rice and beans. They offer a variety of vegetarian/vegan appetizers, soups, and entrees.

Here are a few highlights from our visit: 
Chiles relleno
  • Guacamole: Served in a traditional molcajete, the guacamole comes in either traditional, or rojo style, which is infused with chipotle and queso fresco. We chose the rojo style, and everyone at the table agreed it was the best guacamole they’ve ever had. The reason? This guacamole is packed full of flavor and a lot of heat.
  • Poblano & Elote Soup: Our favorite food the evening was this creamy poblano and roasted corn soup. The sweetness of the roasted corn and the spiciness of the roasted poblanos makes for a pretty great flavor. The bites of corn are like little bits of gold floating in a green sea.
  • Chiles Rellenos: We’ve come to agree that the authenticity of a Mexican restaurant is its treatment of a chile relleno. The chile, cheese, and sauce all matter. Xitomate’s version is perfect. It’s stuffed with the right amount of real Mexican cheese, the chile itself is flavorful, and the tomato chipotle sauce packed on even more flavor to the dish.
  • Churros: Our absolute favorite bite of the night. If you’ve never had a real churro before, you’re in for a real treat. They’re crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and completely addictive. The flan and tres leches cake are tied for a very close second, so I’d recommend ordering all three when dessert time comes around.
The bottom line: it may not be what you’re used to, but Xitomate offers authentic Mexican food!
Argh!!  We missed the churros.  We ended with tres leches cake, nice and absolutely perfect if you like an airy cake and a subtle sweetness.  We are not cake people.  Or, said more specifically, my resident diente de sweets doesn't love cake.  She didn't have a wedding cake.  We forked up every bit of Xitomate's cake, but she loves the sweeter, super-soaked tres leches at Cuba de Ayer.

But we had a terrific meal at Xitomate.  The first dish of tortilla chips puts you on notice.  They're thicker than most restaurant chips.  Barely salted and not oily, so the real flavor came from corn and the salsa.  I had to ask them to clear the second bowl half-eaten because I would have gorged myself.

We ate three dishes, and the shrimp ceviche, al pastor tacos, and huitlacoche enchiladas were each unique and delicious.  The ceviche set the tone -- shrimp marinated in a spicy lime juice and contrasted with the crunch of cucumber.  It's served in a martini glass, and I was sort of put off by a measure of lettuce that filled the bottom of the glass.  It looked like filler until I fished some out with my fork.  A tender, interesting salad mix came up dressed in the spicy marinate.  A smart, fresh way to enjoy a little more ceviche flavor.

Both the tacos and enchiladas showed off a kitchen that works to be special.  It's high praise when I say the tacos were an equal to R&R Taqueria.  Tender moist meat cooked with a tinge of pineapple.  Terrific tortillas that were somehow toothsome, yet tough enough that the last taco was still perfect and firm after soaking up al pastor sauce as we enjoyed everything else.

The enchiladas were filled with fungus.  But that's okay.  That's what we ordered.  Huitlachoce is similar to mushrooms.  It's a fungus that grows on corn, and Mexicans have been smart enough to enjoy it for centuries.  Our enchiladas came out with corn and huitachoce -- a really nice mix of sweet and earthy.    They were topped with a mole sauce that was complex and flavorful.  Moles aren't spicy.  reat ones are sauces where I love the flavor, but don't have the skill to pick apart the ingredients.

If anything, our one complaint was that there was more mole than huitlachoce.  I'm complimenting the mole, but Xitomate impressed me the most when Mrs. HowChow encouraged me to spoon out the filling with no sauce.  That filling -- maybe jazzed with a touch of sauce -- was perfectly cooked and completely unique, the kind of "I can't make this at home" experience that makes me happy to pay for restaurant food.

Overall, Xitomate seems like a fun addition, special and aiming for authentic.  Notice Jackie talking about the real Mexican cheese.  This kitchen doesn't just bake meat and beans under a bed of cheddar.  They're putting fresh sauces out front and then dotting crema or sprinkling white crumbly cheese to make something that you're not going to get at every Mexican restaurant.

That said, I'm still unsure why Mexican restaurants that put so much work into entrees don't have the same success with side dishes.  Xitomate offers several rices and beans, and they're probably better than most.  But the Mexican rice had peas and cubed carrot, but little flavor.  The black beans were fine, but we were talking about maybe ordering just appetizers next time because we wouldn't miss the sides.  Later, Mrs. HowChow and I talked about the beans at Rosa Mexicana where you get a tiny cup, but they have more flavor and less feel of a monotonous expanse.  But again, that's my common critique of Mexican restaurants -- comparing them to sides that can be stars of a meal like the naan at Maiwand Kabob or the panchan at Shin Chon Garden.

Again, check out Jackie's blog at La Casa de Sweets.  Who else has been to Xitomate?  Any other recommendations?  The empanada appetizer looked really interesting, and the soups sound like they'd be winter treats.  Please let us know what you think.

5850 Waterloo Road
Columbia, MD 21045

NEAR:  Xitomate is on Rte 108 just east of Snowden River Parkway.  It's super-accessible from Rte 100.  The space used to be Donna's, and it's right near Victoria Gastropub or Eggspectations.

Xitomate on Urbanspoon


AJ Metcalf said...

I went there last Friday. I really enjoyed the enchilada I had, filled with barbacoa, just the right amount of food.

But I liked their house margarita the best. Margaritas are really the only cocktail I'll drink (more of a wine and beer guy).

I admired that they didn't even ask if I wanted it frozen. It was served on the rocks, as I believe margaritas should be, with a nice balance of tequila and lime. When I interviewed the general manager for my Patch story earlier in the week, he told me they used only 100 percent agave tequila, no mixtas, for their margaritas. While I can't say I noticed, I respect their desire to keep it authentic. I'll be back, with more friends next time.

Linda P. said...

I visited Xitomate twice last weekend and was generally pleased. Service was a bit slow Saturday evening but that is to be expected given they just opened. Our waiter was friendly and attentive and kept us happy with thick, flavorful chips while we waited. I second Mr. Metcalf's comments about the margarita's. I had the "Lola" margarita on both my visits and it was a great accompaniment to my meals.

Saturday I started out with the Ensalada de Pepita. It was fresh and pretty to look at and the jicima and carrots were a nice combination. For my entree I had the shrimp & crab enchilada. Not sure if it was a mistake or not, but the encilada also had chorizo in it which was not in the description of the dish on the menu. I happen to like chorizo but I don't think it really complimented the other flavors. The tequila cream sauce was excellent and the accompanying cilantro rice was nice as well.

I returned Monday evening and our waitress was very freindly. The restaurant was not as busy and service was a bit faster this evening than Saturday. I had the fish taco and was not as happy with this entree. The fish was not very flavorful and the tacos fell apart almost immediately. I almost went for the Al Pastor taco and after reading your review I wish I had. Oh well, at least I know what I'll be having next time I go!

dzoey said...

We went Saturday at 8:30 and the place was crowded but we were seated immediately. I wouldn't really consider this a family place, but it would definitely be good for friends to meet and have a good meal - less a singles bar like Azul 17 than a meal-with-friends kind of place.

We ordered the carne asada tacos, chicken enchiladas, chicken quesadilla, and spinach enchiladas. I enjoyed the spinach enchiladas with its cream tequila sauce which smoothed out the spinach well. The quesadilla was not as succesful, with the chicken unevenly distributed and dry as well. Not bad, but not good either. The chicken enchiladas were quite good with the tortilla flavor going well with the chicken and red sauce. I thought the tacos were very good as well, though they came topped with a hot sauce that was surprising since the menu didn't have this as a spicy dish. I enjoyed the bite my daughter gave me, but it was too spicy to be enjoyable for her. In general, the tacos were good, but not as good as R&R.

We didn't care for the chips, finding them a little greasy and the salsa too astringent (well, I thought it was interesting, but the rest of the table didn't care for it).

There are a couple of rough spots that still need to be smoothed out
1. The glasses our drinks arrived in were dirty
2. They ran out of the chicken flautas we had ordered as part of the appetizer. They also ran out of the poblano & corn soup.
3. Along with the flautas we had ordered some empanadas as an appetizer. When they told us they were out of flautas, we decided to skip the appetizer course so we cancelled the empenadas as well. They showed up anyway.

Nothing terrible, just small starting errors. There was a bit of a wait to get the food, but not unexpected for a busy Saturday night.

One thing I did enjoy was the rice. It was season (blended?) with some greenish spice that I thought really added a nice flavor to it. The beans were beans - no disappointments, no cheers.

I thought the portion sizes were just right. Often we leave Mexican restaurants stuffed and with doggy-bags. These portions were just right, no doggy bags and no one felt over-full, but everyone felt they had eaten well.

Jim S. said...

Ate there during one of the snowstorms. The food was pretty good and the drinks were even better. Much better then Azul if you aren't a tequila drinker. All the servers were nice. They said the menu is still in development. Even though there were several kids in the restaurant, they currently don't have a kids menu but they said one is coming soon. They also said Saturday and Sunday brunch will be coming soon. They are still in a soft opening phase, no advertising yet just serving people through word of mouth and people that drive by that notice either the tacky sign-turners or just the fact that the restaurant is open.

S. said...

We gave them a try a week or two ago and enjoyed it! The salsa and the thick-cut chips were great as was the shrimp empanada. The one disappointment was that some (not all) of the food was cool. For example, the delicious spinach & corn enchiladas and rice were piping hot but the side of black beans were cold. On the other hand, my lunch buddy's refried beans were hot but his Mole Verde burrito was cool. If you're in the mood for a non-alcoholic beverage, try their Horchata (made from rice & almonds), very tasty. Ps, we learned that "xitomate" in Mexico is a tomato and "tomato" in Mexico is tomatillo.

Stephanie P. said...

My husband and I tried Xitomate last weekend after I saw it mentioned on howchow. Since it's close to where we live and we love Mexican, we were excited to try a new place. I personally found it somewhat of a mixed experience. I had a Lola margarita which was delicious.

But, I struggled with the food. While I can see there is some ambition in the kitchen, and it's nice to see carefully thought out sauces and presentation instead of the usual 'slap it on a plate with rice and beans', I was disappointed by the lack of heat on the menu. There are only about a half dozen items on the menu marked as spicy, one of which was the rojo guacamole, which, while tasty, didn't strike me as spicy at all. It seemed like a menu made by someone who doesn't like spicy food (which, for a Mexican place, strikes me as odd). I was offered a side of habanero sauce with my burrito, which was a good sauce, but pretty nuclear. I really wish there was more of a middle ground somewhere. I really like a little heat in my Mexican food. I will have to try another of their dishes marked as spicy next time, and maybe just put some of the salsa they serve with the chips (which was delicious and different) on the side to zip it up.

Clayton Koonce said...

This is by far the best Mexican place I've dined at in Howard County, maybe even anywhere. I've been back several times since they opened, and the menu is already great even before the promised complete menu is in effect. (The coffee is good, but watch out: Their regular coffee is imported from Mexico, but if you ask for "Mexican coffee", you get a beverage combining coffee and tequila -- very good, too, if you're expecting the tequila.)

Aparna said...

We are very disappointed. First, the service took forever -- after 20 minutes, I had to flag down a waitress for some glasses of water. That evening was not even that busy, and the food took an additional 45-50 minutes to come out. That's ridiculous. The guacomole which we ordered -- was offered in a very stingy, lousy amount. It was made with one avocado and the restaurant charged an arm-and-a-leg for it.

Second, the food was very subpar. My family is vegetarian. And so, there are naturally limited veg options for us. There are only 2 veg entrees, and so I attempted to order the huitalacoche - but I was informed that you did not have it! Given that our options are already so limited, it is not acceptable to be out of an essential dish. I then ordered the other remaining vegetarian option, and it was loaded with way too much cheese. Mexican food is known for their rich assortment of sauces: where were the ranchera or tomatillo sauces?

Very, very disappointing. I hope that you will improve your service and menu, as we love mexican food.