In the past few years, a particular breed of Mexican restaurant has cropped up in New Orleans: Sometimes highbrow chefs are at the steering wheel, there's often as much emphasis on the mezcal selection as on the moles, and the focus can skew toward design and creativity rather than authenticity.
Lindsay McLellan's new Broadmoor restaurant El Pavo Real is refreshingly different — a neighborhood spot where the casual and friendly vibe extends from the dining room to the kitchen and dishes carry the mark of a home-cooked meal with little fuss or frill.
McLellan, whose husband is Mexican, cooked at several Mexican restaurants in New York before embarking on a long tenure at the Spanish restaurant Lola's on Esplanade Avenue. Her food is grounded in authentic flavors and techniques, executed in a simple and straightforward fashion in which ingredients shine with little distraction.
Chips and salsa aren't complimentary, a reminder that a meal's precursor shouldn't come across as an afterthought. A mild tomatillo salsa carries a trace of smoke and sits underneath a sprinkling of salty queso fresco. Usually the wallflower of condiments, salsa fresca in this case is a fresh blend of diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeno and a sprinkling of cilantro — a good example of what a few simple ingredients can yield.
House-made corn tortillas are delivered steaming from the kitchen. The soft, thick rounds carry the aroma of freshly milled cornmeal. They serve as vessels for buttery fish tacos where dense white fish — usually drum or snapper — get a generous dip in batter and are fried crispy. They're accompanied by creamy chipotle mayonnaise and tangy cabbage slaw that cuts through the richer elements.
In the hanger steak taco, thin strips are rubbed with chipotle and charred, resulting in tender slices with soft and smoky heat that pairs nicely with pale green tomatillo and avocado salsa. The dish is served with large hunks of queso fresco, an indulgence that feels unnecessary.
For carnitas, a thick slab of pork shoulder is scored, rubbed with achiote and chili paste and braised for hours in its own fat and juices. The soft meat falls apart with the prick of a fork, and the acidic jolt delivered by a shower of bright pink pickled onions helps cut some of the richness of the carnitas.
McLellan's Oaxacan mole poblano with roasted chicken appears simple at first bite but boasts complex flavors and ingredients that tell a different story. A medley of chilies adds spice, and notes of cinnamon, clove and chocolate add warm layers to the velvety, dark brown sauce.
A short list of sweet specials includes silky vanilla-scented flan. The restaurant hasn't procured a liquor license and toting your own bottle of tequila or beer works fine. The hosts dole out fresh-squeezed limeade for margaritas and spicy sangrita for bloody marys and micheladas.
El Pavo Real closes early — at 8 p.m. on nights when dinner is served — but it's a winning spot where attention to ingredients and technique trump pedigree and hype.