Let's face it: At plenty of Mexican restaurants, the promise of free chips and salsa is the highlight of the meal.
Not so at Oralé Kitchen, the Ohio City restaurant recently opened by chef Roberto Rodriguez. And considering the quality of his chips and salsa, that's saying a mouthful.
For the past 12 years, Rodriguez has been running the Mexican food stand Oralé at the West Side Market. According to the chef, the name means "hip" or "happening." And as befitting his hip, happenin' approach to Latin standards, Rodriguez's stand habitually sells out by early afternoon.
That same approach is evident in Rodriguez's restaurant: Within minutes of sitting down, our table was overrun by baskets of fresh, warm tortilla chips and dishes of vividly hued salsas. Everybody's favorite, the tomato-cilantro, was there. But so, too, was a vibrant salsa verde, a chunky roasted corn, and a sweet-spicy pineapple, mango, and habañero version. When we asked for something with even more punch, the kitchen whipped up a fiery roasted tomato puree that was good enough to sell on QVC.
Over the course of two visits, we tasted pretty much every item on the menu. Granted, it's not that massive a document, featuring roughly half a dozen appetizers and salads, and an equal number of entrées. Already, though, Rodriguez has updated the menu with new and different dishes.
One item the chef should never exile is the tamale. Steamed and served in a corn husk, the plump corn cake is filled with tender shredded chicken and drizzled with nutty mole sauce. It's meaty, complex, and yet somehow light and airy. We dug the empañadas so much, we ordered them on both visits. Green from jalapeños, the half-moon pockets conceal a delicate dollop of beef. The charred tomato and chile de arbol sauce adds smoky heat.
I read the words "summer roll" and immediately think of something light, fresh, and, well, summery. Those are precisely the descriptors I'd use for Oralé's wholly unique starter of the same name. Rather than the customary rice-paper wrapper employed at Vietnamese restaurants, Rodriguez rolls whisper-thin sheets of jicama around shrimp, mango, and avocado. Also novel — if less successful — was the blue cornmeal-crusted calamari. Blue as a Smurf, the squid just wasn't close to being crisp enough.
While I'm not sure how they would know, vegetarians love to describe dishes as "good enough for a meat-eater." They'd be dead right if they were referring to Oralé's beer-battered avocado tacos. Stuffed with crisp, creamy, (and yes, meaty) fried avocado slices, this trio of tacos is good eats for herbivores and carnivores alike. Better still are the fish tacos, flush with plump grilled mahi, crisp jicama slaw, and dreamy jalapeño cream sauce. All tacos are presented in nifty stainless steel holders that keep them upright.
In the entrée department, Rodriguez does a great job of taking something familiar — a lamb chop, roasted chicken, or a pork chop, say — and giving it a compelling Latin spin. Those expertly grilled lamb chops, for example, are painted with an earthy, exotic spice rub. A moist airline chicken breast is coated in a mild chile glaze and paired with Mexican cheese-spiked risotto. And the bone-in chipotle honey pork chop comes sided with a crisp potato cake made with shockingly blue Peruvian spuds. Any of those dishes are worth a visit.
Housed in a slender storefront, Oralé seats just 25 in plain but pleasant comfort. A mural on the back wall conjures images of Day of the Dead-style artwork, while another wall is covered with striking photos of the chef's personal collection of Mexican folk masks. A small display cooler is stocked with many of the same salsas and salads found in the West Side Market, perfect for after-hours shopping.
The restaurant sells no alcohol, although customers have been more than happy to fortify meals with their own adult beverages, which the house is equally happy to accommodate. Toss in those complimentary chips and salsas, and you're off to a great start.