Monday, June 10, 2013

Xitomate in Columbia: Rewriting The Review Of Mexican Spots Around Howard County

Fish tacos with good beans and rice
Is it just me, or is the local Mexican branching out?

Four years ago, my summary of Mexican restaurants topped out at Lily's Mexican Market in Columbia and El Azteca in Clarksville.  Soon, I need to update that 2009 round-up, and I may need to declare two separate weight classes -- a super-casual range from R&R Taqueria to the under-construction expansion of Tere's Latin Market, then a heavy-weight class trying to go upscale.

At this point, the new Xitomate in Columbia may top that high-end market.  You get a classy, trendy vibe.  You start with thick, exceptional chips.  You work through a menu full of unusual items like huitlacoche and churros.  I enjoyed our first dinner, and our second meal was memorable even though we split a glorified snack of chips, ceviche, empanada, and tacos.

First, the kitchen really does interesting food.  I loved the fish tacos, especially the warm corn tortillas that contrasted with spiciness of the salsa.  Tilapia is a mild fish, and the tacos went subtle in a way that took skill -- fresh, sharp salsa and the earthiness of the corn tortilla, enough to show off fish that was cooked moist.

Second, Xitomate passes my extra test with beans and rice that are better than the ones that I make at home.  When Mexican places offer lackluster side dishes, I'm more than happy to take my business to R&R -- where the tacos will be spectacular and half the price.  In contrast, this place makes the visit worth your while with cumin-laced black beans and a yellow rice studded with vegetables.  

Xitomate's flavors vary far more than your average Mexican place.  A creamy sauce under the empanada.  A sharp slickness of the ceviche.  The marinated shrimp has a real taste of lime and a bite from onion.  Forkfuls come with the crunch of onion and cucumbers.  The high-end lettuce pushed into the bottom of the ceviche glass becomes a fiery salad, and I used the last of the beans to cool my mouth own.

You get all this in one of the nicer dining rooms in Howard County.  It's still casual, and it still looks out on a parking lot.  But it's a cool, modern design.  Friendly for kids.  Classy enough for a date.

I do want to re-write the 2009 series where I first tried to summarize food around Howard County.  That series was so long ago that Blogger didn't offer pages, and I "hid" the description of the entire series by dating in January 1, 2008.  What would you suggest for Mexican -- the restaurants and the favorite dishes?


Anonymous said...

Everybody I know who has been to Xitomate has come to a common conclusion - the chips are awful. Too thick, not enough salt, and overcooked. The salsa having no flavor doesn't help. Then they have the nerve to charge for a second serving, in the unlikely event that somebody actually wants more. We love the guacamole but hate that we have to eat it with those chips. Everybody seems to enjoy everything on the menu, just a shame about the chips.

Alison said...

Agreed about the chips...certainly the low point of the meal both times we've eaten there. They taste like a poor man's version of Tostitos Gold chips from the supermarket. Definitely not a compliment! The rest of the meals were very good though.

Robin said...

Hmm, maybe there's been a change in the meantime, but the chips were great when we went a couple months back. The cochinita pibil was also incredible. Actually my only real complaint is the fact that the drink menu is basically the same as at Azul 17. Granted, they're still among the better cocktails in the area, but it would have been nice to see them branch out in the same way they did with the food.

HowChow said...

That's so funny. I really liked the chips, but I know exactly what Anon and Alison are describing.

"Overcooked" is a real issue. We actually had one batch at the sister restaurant Azul 17 that was burned.

But I had the thicker, less-salty chips at Xitomate exactly as Anon and Alison describe, and I really liked that flavor. To me, one bowl of the chips and salsa was a strong starter. It's definitely different from most places. I can see why some people differ in the opinion -- especially if you get a batch with an overcooked tinged.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the comments about charging for extra chips and salsa. Almost every place in the county seems to do that, at least in my experience.

But yeah, I didn't dig the chips, but that may be personal preference. I vastly prefer thinner and lighter chips.

Anonymous said...

I really wanted to like the restaurant but was very underwhelmed both times. I agree the chips are awful - very greasy. Service was terrible even when the restaurant was mostly empty, food is bland, portions are small. Atmosphere is much nicer than when it was Donna's cafe, but that's the only positive thing I can say.

Anonymous said...

The chips are terrible. The worst Mexican place in HO co is La Fiesta though. I had a great meal at Xito except those chips, which is so disappointing. Sadly On the Border has the best Chips and salsa in HO co

Anonymous said...

We ate there pre-grand-opening. I was not impressed. I agree with the other comments, I disliked the chips and that little teeny tiny serving of salsa just made me annoyed. When I asked for more salsa to put on my very bland food, I was CHARGED for it! The tacos are very very tiny and the serving portions of beans and rice are way to small. The margarita, while good, was expensive and very weak. I'm not going back, it's way to pricey for the portion size.

kam said...

Huh, every time I've eaten at Xitomate I've left full and happy.

I happen to like the thicker chips. I'm not really a fan of thinner ones. I suspect this is one of those things that's just going to be fine for some people and a complete turnoff for others.

Service has varied; one night we were basically eating in the bar area, so things were slow. We also were crazy enough to go on Cinco de Mayo and it was quite busy, so service was slower then, but not intolerably so. Other times, no problem.

I enjoy the variety of foods they offer. I realize that some people may find the idea of eating fungus rather gross, but I like the huitlacoche dishes. Just think of it like mushrooms.

I tried the ceviche once and it was actually a bit too spicy for my tastes; the spice overwhelmed everything else.

I'm not a margarita connoisseur, but I've enjoyed the variety I've tried there. I'll have to price compare other restaurants, but they don't seem out of line for ones that aren't the standard lime-and-tequila set.


kevlar51 said...

I went to Xitomate about 2 months ago. I don't remember the chips too well. We thought the food was creative, but a bit on the blander side. They were trying out a kids menu, which was pretty varied. We got my 3-year old some flautas, which were served on a sauce that was (in my opinion) too spicy to be on a kids menu. Fortunately the flautas were arranged in a manner that they weren't all touching sauce.

The service I remember was really good when we first sat down, but as the place got more crowded, it was difficult to get our server's attention, which tells me they were understaffed.

One nice thing about Xitomate (and Azul17) is it participates in both iDine and, so there's the opportunity for some nice savings on your cost.

cafen8ed said...

We went in April and they were pushing a margarita with limited edition tequila. I asked the price before ordering and it was 18 or 20$. I declined. For the rest of the meal I heard the drink being offered but never heard anyone ask for the price. I bet they were surprised when they rec'd their bill. Food was ok, not sure I would return.

LJ said...

Not a fan at all. Went on advice/reviews from Yelp, etc., and came away completely disappointed. Beans had no flavor, rice was more of the same, tacos were super dry. It may be a chain, but I'd take On The Border over this joint any day of the week. I won't be back.

Jim Gross said...

When it comes to Mexican food that is good and cheap, we always head to Mi Casa. I have never had a bad meal there and the prices are hard to beat. You should check them out sometime. I prefer them to El Azteca by a long stride.

jamieh49 said...

Wow, I'm surprised at all of the negative reviews. Sounds like I’m in the minority but I love the chips and salsa. I have no problem paying for extra if needed. The service has been wonderful the four or five times we’ve gone. I have a 6 month old and they’ve been more than accommodating. A few nights we’ve caught one of the waiters singing and the servers and line chef’s dancing along which I thought was very cool and added character. I’ve always enjoyed the food here. I typically stick to the enchiladas, relleenos and a special here and there. While I enjoy the food, it’s the margaritas that keep me coming back. The Diabla and El Cadillac are my favorites. The only negative experience I’ve had came from a very spicy slaw in one of the lamb specials. It burnt my mouth to the point where I needed to take water from surrounding tables which was embarrasing but not too big of an issue.

Stephanie said...

My husband and I love mexican and live close to Xitomate, so we really wanted to love it....but we just can't. We don't have a problem with the chips, although the salsa serving is quite small, and I wish they had more than one salsa option. Their regular offering was a little too mild for my tastes, and the only other offering they had when we've been there is a habanero sauce that is downright nuclear. I'd love something in the middle of that spectrum.

The main reason we just can't love the place is the food is really bland. The descriptions on the menu sound lovely, and the plating is nice, but everything just tastes flat to us. Also, as you may have guessed from my salsa comment, I like a bit of heat in my mexican food, but Xitomate only has a half dozen or so things even marked as spicy on their menu, and any of them that I've tried have barely registered as spicy to me. Just disappointing overall.

On the positive side, the drink menu is great, and we've loved all of the margaritas we've tried.

Anonymous said...

We used to enjoy Xitomate (Columbia), esp. their "'rita & fajita" nights on Thursdays. It's still advertised on their Web site. So imagine our disappointment after looking forward to R&F night all week to be told (after we were seated) that Xitomate doesn't do that any more! Even tho' it's still up on their site! Disappointed, we left and had a really nice dinner ... elsewhere.