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Sea change

East side Mexican eatery El Siete Mares looks to lighten, pare down expansive menu of classics

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Reading a menu shouldn't feel like navigating a phone book, and Michelle Lucero, owner of seven-month-old El Siete Mares (The Seven Seas), recently realized it. Her current 11-by-14, laminated flip-chart of Mexican standards is not only cumbersome, but time-consuming to scan. I had barely gotten through half of it one night last month when the server came for our orders.

I can't really fault the pride and passion so clearly exemplified here, but her soon-to-be-pared-down menu should still demonstrate both; Lucero will be drawing upon the same dozen-plus years of restaurant experience and generations of Chihuahua-born family recipes.

On Academy Boulevard between Palmer Park Boulevard and Constitution Avenue, El Siete Mares fights off the unsightliness of the transformer station outside with whimsical nautical décor inside, complete with fishing nets, seashells and starfish clinging to the walls.

Naturally, seafood stars here, but the tamales ($10.50 per dozen) have been the outfit's biggest seller, according to Lucero, who's strict about them being made from scratch daily. Our tamale sampling was a tad light on the pork and heavy on the masa, but our thick ground beef enchilada ($8.45 for the pairing) more than made up for that. Both brought tastefully simple, traditional flavors.

Service also scored, with chips and salsa arriving quickly. My son enjoyed a tasty cup of horchata ($1.90, with free refills), Mexico's popular, sweetened rice water drink enriched here with half-and-half and cinnamon. "Most people use boxed syrup," Lucero says, "but we soak our rice every morning."

My chimichanga ($7.50), filled with moist shredded chicken, came drenched in so much flavorful red sauce that it silenced the crunch of this otherwise ideal deep-fried classic. The combination of chicken and beef fajitas ($11.95) took on standard sizzling form, accompanied by a choice of flour or corn tortilla, pico de gallo, lettuce, guacamole and sour cream. The accoutrements were needed, as our batch tasted rather dry and bland sans ample fixings.

In stark contrast was the standout A la Mantequilla ($11.50), a butter-roasted, butterflied trout. More interesting and flavorful than the commonly used tilapia, the trout picked up a lovely hint of lime with the butter and wasn't too oily.

Unfortunately, while enjoying it, all I could think was that the delicately prepped fish deserved a lighter side than the heavy refried beans. All of El Siete Mares' entrées arrive with the beans, Mexican rice and a smattering of chopped lettuce and diced tomato. Lucero later told me that I missed out on substituting an order of calabacitas, a healthy side of sautéed squash, tomatoes, onions and garlic.

Asserting that she doesn't want her plates to look like those at so many other Mexican eateries, Lucero has listened to customers and plans to add more veggies on the new, shortened menu. Hinting at the type of additions we might see: the simple starter of cucumbers ($4) sprinkled with lime and dusted with a chili-seasoned salt, which proved light and delicious on a hot day.

But there'll still be room for some classics, such as El Siete Mares' hot, fluffy sopapillas ($4), rolled in cinnamon and sugar. They offer an exemplary finish, and are here to stay. Let's hope Lucero's commitment to providing something different in the ubiquitous food genre is, too.

scene@csindy.com

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