"Best South Durham Resto News Ever" read the headline of a thread posted in September on Chowhound.com, the foodie chat forum. I should know enough to ignore such online hyperventilation, but I'm an eternal optimist, i.e., sucker.
Holy mole! For once, the hyperventilation had merit. Los Comales, the highlight of that carnitas corridor otherwise known as Durham's North Roxboro Road, would open a second restaurant in the Patterson Place shopping plaza, a mere 10-minute hop from the spiceless wasteland of downtown Chapel Hill, where for non-culinary reasons I happen to live.
Adding to the good news, the new restaurant would share a parking lot with DSW Shoes, meaning that Los Comales would be an easy conjugal sell.
This really was the "Best South Durham Resto News Ever."
Owner Juana Moncada Angel and her children draw on the traditional recipes of their native state of Guanajuato, conceding little or nothing to tastes anesthetized by Qdoba, Chipotle and other purveyors of global mall cuisine. At the Roxboro Street location, Latino workers in paint-stained jeans hunch over platillos of tripe tacos and glance at telenovelas on the overhead TV.
The Chowhounds worried that the new restaurant would pander to the gringo masses drawn in by the surrounding box stores. As it turns out, Los Comales Jr. proudly replicates its parent restaurant. The only departure is an expanded menu. Additions include several platters: two steak, five shrimp and three egg, plus the "molcajete mixto," an omnibus entrée that is to Mexican food what the banana split is to ice cream. The staff and menu are Anglophone, but the new location otherwise takes a piñata bat to prefixes like "pseudo" and "neo."
Los Comales specializes in massive helpings of unpretentious comfort food, with its 12-item salsa bar providing both heat and a certain quiet complexity that some of our "better" restaurants would do well to emulate.
The fish, shrimp and beef platters are warming exercises in caloric excess, but Los Comales' specialty is masa-based street food: papusas, sopes, gorditas, huaraches and tacos. Variously shaped, stuffed and fried, these treats validate one of the cardinal tenets of my life philosophy: you can't go wrong with meat wrapped in starch.
The taco menu is a nose-to-tail test of one's foodie street cred. There is cachete (beef cheek), higado (beef liver), lengua (beef tongue), tripa (beef tripe), buche (pork stomach) and birria (goat), as well as less nerve-challenging options such as barbacoa (braised lamb), chorizo (sausage) and asada (grilled steak). At $1.75–$2.25 each, Los Comales' tacos are among the Triangle's notable bargains: emanations of deep, true soul at Taco Bell prices.
The tacos al pastor ("shepherd-style tacos") are my particular weakness, belonging to a local pantheon that includes Guglhupf's jelly Berliners, Weaver Street Market's sourdough miche and Capp's Neapolitan pizzas. Los Comales sears thin pork steaks on a griddle, dices the pork into smallish cubes, adds pineapple chunks and juices and returns the juicy, charred hash to the griddle for final caramelization. Garnished with chopped onion, cilantro and a thick wedge of pickled jalapeño on a pair of handmade, minutes-old tortillas, the finished taco deserves a Navy jet flyover.
I equally—or almost equally—recommend the chiles rellenos, chilaquiles, enchiladas rojas, huevos rancheros and 18 varieties of torta (i.e., Mexican sandwich). Weighing what feels like a full pound, these Leviathans pile meat and vegetables (carrots, potatoes, avocado, you name it) between enormous ovals of fluffy white bread, in some cases dipped in guajillo pepper sauce. Don't expect to get any afternoon work done. Everything should be washed down with an icy glass of horchata, the traditional cinnamon and ground rice drink that both complements and cools the spice of a Mexican street meal.
Los Comales is the last restaurant to leave me feeling peevish, but in the interest of seeming professionally alert, I should note that the shredded iceberg lettuce that serves as a pervasive garnish is sometimes a bit wilted and browned. A neater and fresher chiffonade would make a difference.
And then there are the TVs mounted on the walls à la Fahrenheit 451. Among my top restaurant irritations, TVs rank with that bleak query, "You guys still working on that?" I realize that to inveigh against the screen in any of its forms is to inveigh against the entire postmodern order. I can only quote Howard Beale, the crazed newscaster in the film Network, who cries epileptically, "This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! Turn off your television sets! Turn them off now! Turn them off right now!"
Is a mere taco worth an earful of the nattering abyss? You know how it is ... the wife needs shoes.
This article appeared in print with the headline "¡Fenomenal!."