The Compleat Rainey Street: El Naranjo

El Naranjo
85 Rainey St. 512-474-2776,
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Bar and botanas service until midnight Thursday-Saturday. Closed Monday.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.20.12
El Naranjo didn’t just paint the beadboard and sand the wooden floors when it moved from its Rainey Street trailer into one of the block’s old bungalows. It worked some kind of culinary art museum magic, making the space inside as different from the sage-green exterior as if it were another building entirely, with tall ceilings and partitioned rooms with bleached wood walls and dark wood wainscoting flowing into maple-toned floors. Black-and-white photos and linen cloud lanterns spread a cool urban vibe. Down a hallway lined with black-and-chrome barstools lies a tree-shaded patio with new wood, granite-top tables and a sentry line of oscillating fans.
It’s been a slow transition into the house, coming more than two years after the avocado-green trailer rolled into the driveway at 85 Rainey St. Ernesto Torrealba, who owns El Naranjo with his wife — celebrated Oaxacan chef and culinary-school instructor Iliana de la Vega — said it’s been a family project, drawing even on their daughters to make it happen. I remember seeing Torrealba in that tight food-truck kitchen, intensity written on his brow as he moved from prep to burners to service window in a hot blur. He seems less blurry now. The intensity is still there, morphed into something more like patriarchal stewardship.
The thing to know about the enchiladas de jicama appetizer ($8.25) is not that the tortillas are actually razor-thin cross sections of jicama. Nor that it’s resplendent in green, orange, red and white, dressed with feathered avocado. Nor that it’s finished with olive oil and chile oil and potatoes and carrots and more jicama, all of them diced with quadratic precision drilled into the kitchen staff by de la Vega the taskmaster.
No, the thing to know is that the orange ring on top is NOT a bell pepper, and it will suck your breath away like a napalm backdraft. The sweat of the tropics will glaze your brow in a pendulum swing that both sets you afire and cools you off. It’s called a manzano pepper. Respect it or fall. Once the embers cooled, a survivor’s peace fell over me. That peace amplified my fond memories of molotes ($6) from the trailer days, three torpedoes of fried corn masa around chorizo and potato that tasted as good on a restyled urban patio as they did on a dusty picnic table under halogen lights.
The sanctuary of a roof and four walls means El Naranjo can explore the fresher subtleties of Mexican cooking, like a cool bowl of guacamole loosely integrated with tomato, onion and lime with thick tortilla chips. A cold dish of crisp blanched cactus ($7) in a vinegared pico neatly skirts the cactus conundrum. Meaning that cactus lies somewhere between green beans and okra in texture, and it’s susceptible to the failings of each — string and slime. This Nopales Clasicos found the alchemy in between.
For El Naranjo, I violated my beer-is-not-a-mixer rule. Twice. The first time I played a little monkey-see, monkey-do after watching kick-ballers fill a table as long as a stretch-limo Hummer on the patio. They had dogs — which I can’t stand at restaurants, even on a patio — but they also had tall glasses half-full of some True Blood concoction with salt and lime and ice, into which they poured stubby little bottles of Negra Modelo. I’ll still take the beer by itself over the michelada ($6.50) any day, but it was cool and spicy and suited El Naranjo’s nonstop game of Mexican Twister. The beer played a fizzy neutralizer in the Brass Knuckles cocktail ($9), turning tequila and Mexican brown sugar into a kind of Yucatan Peninsula iced tea.
As much as I liked the trailer’s BYOB groove, it’s nicer to have a bartender shake a dry house margarita ($7) that lets the tequila’s woodsy fire shine or to appreciate the blushy pisco pucker of a Jamaica Sour ($11). And Mexican petite sirah is a wine-list novelty worth trying at $5 a glass, even if you save its overstimulated sweetness for dessert. Not that dessert is an essential element here, judging from the leaden overkill of a hard and dense tres leches cake or a rompope flan as thick as cheesecake, with a similar sour-dairy profile and no eggnog spice to speak of. Both needed a refining edge to carry their $9 price.
El Naranjo plays on interior Mexican themes like chiles rellenos, mole sauces and fish. For a chile relleno Oaxaceña ($17), a pepper the size of an eggplant was dipped in egg batter and soft fried, stuffed with enough flax-fibered pork to run a street taco cart for a half-hour, laced with olives, capers and raisins. A velvet sauce of almond and tomato the color of a fall pumpkin and a neat mound of white rice finished the duotone dish. The lean elegance of that dish failed to carry over to a $22 plate of cinnamon-red mole with duck, one of several protein choices that included chicken, beef and pork. Mole in Mexican cooking is like the sauces of French cooking. Get the sauce right and you’re one step away from the classics. But that next step is a big one: Roasted, braised, grilled, fried or poached, the meat has to be as well-executed as the sauce. The mole was earthy and expressed smart amber spice and a fortifying undercurrent of masa. But the duck had been overcooked to the texture and taste of chicken thigh, with the fat melted entirely away and the skin a leathery afterthought.
The main ingredient also got in the way of a dish called Pescado Tikin-Xic ($22). The plate was all Yucatan art, a sunset vermilion sauce robed over achiote sea bass resting on a folded green banana leaf. Inside the leaf was a dense tamal of spinach and masa. The sauce carried an easy pepper sweet-and-glow punctuated by onion and lime and the fish was pearled and hot. But the first bites confirmed the rumor started by the smell the minute the plate hit the table, an aroma you’d expect from broiled generic whitefish in shabbier settings but not from El Naranjo. The fish wasn’t right, and no amount of presentation can fix that.
But given Rainey Street’s manufactured atmosphere, it’s refreshing to breathe in the highs and lows of a real Mexican kitchen in a space defined not by its address but rather by a family willing to take the white-knuckle ride from food truck to a full house.
(TOP PHOTOS: The El Naranjo truck operated from the driveway of the restaurant’s permanent home at 85 Rainey St. FIRST INSET: Molotes, enchiladas de jicama, guacamole and nopales clasicos. SECOND INSET: Chile relleno de Oaxaceña, interior views and a Jamaica Sour and michelada on the patio. Photos  by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)