This review is dedicated to my readers. The people who don’t just scan the score. ¶ Two weeks ago, I went into Valle of Mexico for dinner. I am giving it a rating of 7 plates. ¶ “Scanners” will never suspect this rating denotes the best Mexican cuisine in Buffalo. Because the truth about a restaurant is deeper than a digit. ¶ So much depends on how deeply the meal satisfied you. My entree, pork carnitas in salsa verde, was served on cracked china, one bump away from disaster. Yet its vibrant flavor was so evocative of the best Mexican meals I have known that I will be back for more. ¶ Is the food really that good, or am I just suffering from acute mole deprivation? Read on, and perhaps I’ll give you enough clues to solve the mystery.
The place is not much to look at. Mexican decorations have been added since it was El Gran Coqui. A ceiling-mounted TV provided mariachi tunes. But the bones of the first McPartlans remain visible in the building at the corner of South Park Avenue and Alamo Place.
If Scanners make it inside the restaurant, they’re probably going to walk out unsatisfied. That’s because Valle of Mexico can be a frustrating place to eat.
It’s a family restaurant in the strictest sense: Hector Martinez, his wife and his son were the entire staff on this night. Hector has cooked at a restaurant, but never run one before.
Half the dishes I requested from the menu were unavailable, including chorizo. Ninety minutes after ordering, I inquired about four dishes that hadn’t arrived. The son said he thought I did not want them. He apologized and produced three.
I walked out past two tables that had been waiting for food for at least 45 minutes, while others waited for takeout.
Yet I can’t wait to go back.
My reasons are all about the food. The Martinez menu does not surpass my favorite Mexican restaurant experiences in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. But it nails the Mexican grandmother cooking I’ve known and loved – hearty, brightly flavored, made from scratch.
The best stuff available changes daily, and you have to ask a few questions before you order. Ask about specials, and which taco meats they have.
Taco fillings can be served not only in tacos ($2.50), but also burritos ($8.95), plates ($5.95-$12.95) or tortas, Mexican subs on toasted rolls ($6.50). I liked carnitas, pork shoulder cooked until it’s tender and sweet, then crisped on a griddle; al pastor, pork in sauce with pineapple; chorizo, pork sausage; and lengua, which is beef tongue, velvety and rich. The carne asada, or steak, was tender, not leathery, as most are.
The tacos are on doubled corn tortillas, meat topped with fresh chopped tomato, onion, cilantro and sauce. The sauce can vary from bright red chile, to green tomatillo, to a splash of crema, which is like thinned-out sour cream.
Another appetizer discovery was picaditas ($3, with meat $4.95). Little corn dough patties are griddled and topped with beans, cheese, onion and chile sauce. At three to an order, they’re a steal, except when the bottoms are scorched, which happened once. (There’s a bunch of other corn dough options, including sopes, huaraches, chalupas and gorditas.)
My strongest recommendation is for the mole poblano ($12.95). This sweet brown sauce carries notes of spices like nutmeg and cinnamon over a foundation of tannic chocolate and bitter chile, as a good brown mole will. Its excellence made me wonder if others are using jarred versions. It arrived ladled over hunks of tender chicken breast, with rice and beans and a basket of griddled corn tortillas, for dunking or making your own tacos guisados.
The beans were lumpy mashed pintos, tastier than usual, but lukewarm. The rice was fluffy, with the right hint of tomato, leading Cat to compare it favorably to her Mexican mother’s version.
The salsa verde also was better than average, striking a balance between tomatillo tang, herbal cilantro and sautéed onion sweetness. Mine arrived over pork carnitas ($10.95) that were tender inside and chewy at the edges. We carefully passed the flawed plate, and wiped it clean with tortillas.
On our server’s recommendation, I got chilaquiles regulares verdes ($7.95), which is a plate of torn-up corn tortillas soaked in a smoother, slightly spicier version of the salsa verde, with more cilantro, then topped with shredded cheese. I thanked him for the saucy answer to overcheesed nachos.
The chiles rellenos ($14.95) deserved praise, too. This was a whole poblano stuffed with a modest amount of cheese, battered and fried, then napped in a bay leaf-flavored tomato sauce. It tasted like roasted chile first, and won my admiration.
Doing my duty, I ordered camarones al mojo de ajo – shrimp in garlic sauce – as my seafood choice ($15.95). I got a platter of rice ringed with small shrimp that had been cooked in garlic butter past chewy, to vulcanized. They were still tasty, but a disappointment.
From the huge selection of drinks, I tried the horchata and tamarindo ($3), and the mango shake ($3.50). The tamarindo was tangy but lacked flavor, and the mango was weak in the shake. Horchata, made from pureed rice with a touch of cinnamon, rice pudding as a beverage, was terrific.
The torta was fine for lunch the next day, salty halfway-to-jerky beef on a bed of refried beans, with pickled jalapeños and maybe mayonnaise. The roll had been buttered and toasted, adding to its savor.
I would tell you about the guacamole, but it never arrived.
When I requested a bill, it took Hector and his son three or four minutes to produce one, working together with a pad and calculator. (In the confusion, he overcharged me by a dollar. That has certainly happened elsewhere, and it was a complicated bill.)
I don’t blame him, I blame the lack of a modern point-of-sale system. Dios mio, if the Martinezes can find enough regulars to win the time to straighten out the operation outside the kitchen, Buffalo’s menu would be better for it. Plus, I will be able to eat more chilaquiles.
Bring friends and a deck of cards. Or a good book, or a movie on a tablet. Or maybe even a newspaper. Just go.
When you get a craving for Mexican in Buffalo, remember the Alamo (Place) place, Valle of Mexico.
Valle of Mexico - 7 plates
Family-run restaurant serves classics Mexican grandmothers would proudly offer.
WHERE: 1586 South Park Ave. (822-8880)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday, Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3-$11; tacos, tortas and burritos, $2.50-$8.95; entrees, $5.95-$16.95.
PARKING: Street. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.