Even when Geno Bahena puts out reruns, it's hard to look away.
If you’ve eaten at Tepatulco, or the now-gone Chilpancingo or Delicioso y Sabroso, you’ll have no problem imaging what the food at Real Tenochtitlan will be like. You’ll be familiar with the daily, rotating selection of moles and the hand-formed tortillas. In all likelihood, you’ll recognize some of the Mexican folk art in the room—maybe you’ll have even eaten below one of these masks before.
In many cases, this would be a bad thing. But chef Geno Bahena’s food is not unlike an old sitcom—The Cosby Show, for instance. Or The Golden Girls. You can’t help but like it even the 100th time around. I’m not saying it can’t get old, because it can—sometimes even on only the second visit. But those Golden Girls were old, too. And remember how entertaining they were?
For those new to Bahena’s food, here’s the drill: Order some chips and salsa. Actually, wait and see if some salsa is brought to you—it’s listed on the menu for $3, but if it’s a slow night they may bring it out free. Either way, get some. The roasted tomatillo salsa is one of the best you will ever have—good enough to quiet your protestations over having to pay for it.
Next: Tostadas piled with briny, salty, lip-puckering marlin ceviche. Or the sopes, one of which is topped with juicy chicken and fiery mole rojo—a precursor of the entrées to come.
Now stop. The tableside guacamole may call to you, but you should resist—it’s merely fine and nothing special. And the appetizer platter is mostly a bore (though the empanada-like Mexico City–style quesadillas are hard to argue with).
As for the entrées, you can’t really go wrong, so long as there’s a sauce involved. This probably sounds familiar, too—so much has been written about Bahena’s moles that it seems like a cliché to go on about them. But that’s because these sauces (some of which technically aren’t moles, but similar) are the reason to visit. Their nuanced interweavings of fire, fruitiness and spice is so expertly rendered that long after you’ve swallowed you can still feel the flavor echoing in your chest. That means that the lean, tender ostrich (pictured) plays second fiddle to the ancho chile sauce paired with it. Likewise, the lamb, while well cooked, can’t keep up with the dark mole negro. (The one exception is the mole blanco, a thick, cloying sauce that has the unfortunate flavor of a sweet béchamel).
Yes, it can get tiring to see the same plate trucked out of the kitchen again and again. As you face another plate of fanned-out protein, a pool of sauce beneath it and a pyramid of rice on the side, fatigue can quickly set in. But Bahena has said he plans to stay at this restaurant—no more opening carbon copies of the same place in a different neighborhood, he says. If that turns out to be true, Real will be worth keeping an eye on—either to relish in the comfort of his reruns or to see what happens when he finally does something new.