Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hispanic restaurant has odd hours, but great food

At Lalo's, the hours are odd but the food is great
Sacramento Bee, Aug. 16, 2009

Here we have a restaurant that opens too late for breakfast, closes too early for dinner, is often too crowded at lunch but is wonderful all the same.

Devotion to this family-owned little Sacramento eatery comes with its own hazards. It may get you in trouble with your boss, your doctor, your tailor. It will have you doing odd things at odd hours, like slipping out of the house on a weekend morning to get dibs on lamb barbacoa, or cutting out of work early to race to Lalo's before it closes, inexplicably, at 6 p.m.

It's all part of the charm.

Enter through the front door when the place is crowded and see what I mean. The first thing you will hear above the din is the sizzle from the kitchen, where Cecilia Tinoco runs the show with the focus and passion of an artisan.

Step toward the pass-through window and you will catch a glimpse of the griddle, the stove, the busy hands making food dance from the heat to the plate. Tortas, burritos, quesadillas, omelets, huaraches. Carnitas, pollo, al pastor, cabeza, lengua (more on these in a moment).

It's no wonder devotees look at Lalo's Restaurant as a place that rings so true – a Mexican Mexican restaurant, if that makes sense. For those who are already on the Lalo's bandwagon, here's a scoop: The family plans to open a second one in Rio Linda in the next couple of months.

The current Lalo's stands out as a culinary mecca in a section of town that is part residential and plenty industrial. It is a would-be dive whose food elevates everything else, a place with a rustic kitchen, brightly painted dining room walls, framed photos of food near the cash register, vinyl checkered tablecloths on Formica tables, plain chairs straight from the discount restaurant supply store.

Folks come from near and far to fill those seats because this little restaurant makes good on its modest intentions – serving Mexican regional dishes from recipes passed through the generations.

The first time I asked Cecilia Tinoco about the family's 5-year-old business, her voice cracked and tears welled in her eyes when she mentioned her family working together. Lalo's is named for her 89-year-old grandfather who lives in Mexico.

It is a heartfelt family operation, including Tinoco, her husband, Weneeslao Espindola Tinoco, and his 20-year-old fraternal twins, Cecilia and Juan (who will be departing soon to join the Marine Corps).

Sure, there are other ethnic eateries in town that get the details right without dumbing down the menu. But if you're the type of culinary soul who goes through life searching for all that is real and true about cooking and culture, you'll see what I mean about Lalo's.

"I want people to leave with happy stomach," she said with a smile.

Tinoco is self-conscious about her English. It's in the kitchen where she expresses herself best, and where her message is clearest.

My order begins with a piece of performance art – the molcajete ($10, which serves at least two). Cecilia slices a piece of cactus and places it on the hot griddle, next to pieces of chicken, beef and spicy chorizo. Imagine how that sounds and smells up close. Meanwhile, the salsa broth is simmering in a pan on the stove. Next to it, a rough-surfaced black bowl made of lava stone heats over an open flame.

"I make it with lots of love," said the chef. She drapes the ribbons of cooked cactus around the bowl, tucks in the pieces of meat and then pours the hot broth of the salsa over the even hotter bowl, prompting an explosive sizzle, a burst of steam that rises to the ceiling, causing my nostrils to flare. The aroma is spicy and complex and heady, unmistakably Mexican.

At my table, I pick pieces out of the hot bowl, cut them up and place them in a small, warm tortilla, the first of several. It is the way Cecilia's elders did it for years in and around Mexico City, where the cuisine took root through many generations.

On another visit, I sampled a variety of tacos ($1.25 each), from the smooth-tasting marinated grilled pork called al pastor, to the spicy heat of cabeza (yes, beef head), and the tender shredded carnitas. If you want tasty beef tongue, ask for the lengua.

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