Fed Man 55: El Naranjo (30)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 30: El Naranjo
85 Rainey St. 512-474-2776, www.elnaranjo-restaurant.com.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Bar open until midnight Thursday-Saturday. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.22.12
How does the Mexican food joke go? “I figure we can rename this one entree seven times and sell it to the North Americans.” That’s Jim Gaffigan, riffing on the conspiracy that gave us “tortilla with cheese, meat or vegetables” and called it nachos, burritos and to-sta-tas. Our engagement with Mexican food has become so ritualized that all the joy’s been sucked out of it. Which is why El Naranjo isn’t just good; it’s essential.
El Naranjo chef and co-founder Iliana de la Vega starts her game of Mexican Twister with enchiladas de jicama ($8.25), showing that even the word “enchilada” has less to do with tortillas and more to do with chiles. Parchment-thin slices of jicama take the tortilla’s traditional role, layered with chile oil and potatoes and carrots and more jicama, all of them diced with quadratic precision, topped with cotija cheese and chile manzano that will clear your head for what’s next.
What’s next might be guacamole ($8.50) loosely integrated with tomato, onion and lime, with thick tortilla chips and a trio of red and green salsas and the sour heat of escabeche with cauliflower, carrot and jalapeño. Nopales Clasicos ($7) lets cactus show off its country-club side, blanched and crisp in a clean vinegared pico. The menu follows up with chile rellenos, Yucatan-style fish and mole sauces with a choice of beef, pork, chicken, vegetables or duck.
The moles swerve from pipian with pumpkin seed to a Oaxacan yellow mole to weekly specials that draw from the madman’s pantry of Mexican spice: chocolate, cinnamon, clove, sesame and a parched red desert rainbow of chiles. The $22 dish was compromised on one visit by duck overcooked like chicken thigh, redeemed on another by duck rendered rosy inside, graduating to a tawny crackle outside. For a chile relleno Oaxaceña ($18), a pepper the size of an eggplant was dipped in egg batter and soft fried, stuffed with pulled pork laced with olives, capers and raisins, finished with a velvet sauce of almond and tomato.
This is food so different from the El Naranjo food truck that established de la Vega’s presence in Austin with husband and co-owner Ernesto Torrealba. They’d already made a name in Mexico, and de la Vega teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. The trailer that sat in the driveway of their Rainey Street restaurant brought a taste of interior Mexican street food with cochinita pibil and fish tacos and fried masa torpedoes called molotes. People who miss that food like I do will be glad to know the restaurant’s added lunch service, with a street-style taco menu you can’t get at night, plus two rolled-tortilla dishes — one with green salsa and the other with mole sauce — that spell out the differences between “enchilada” and “enmolada.”
With a graceful transition from food truck to a restaurant bungalow outfitted like an urban art gallery and a bar that moves from brassy michelada to refined margarita to Mexican pinot noir with ease, El Naranjo is equal parts education and inspiration.
(TOP: El Naranjo's bungalow is a tasteful escape from the Rainey Street circus. FIRST INSET: From top left: dark mole with duck, enchiladas de jicama, guacamole and Nopales Clasicos. SECOND INSET: Chile relleno Oaxaceña, interior shots and from the bar, a michelada and a Jamaica sour. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants