Uptown’s Alo may call its cuisine Latin American “‘street food,’ but the freshly-made salsas tell a more sophisticated tale
French cuisine has always been synonymous with elaborate sauces: Bearnaise, hollandaise, buerre blanc, b?chamel. Many European-style restaurants even employ a saucier in the kitchen someone tasked with stirring up all the eggs and creams and foams into the perfect accompaniment.
So what explains why Alo a self-defined Mexican and Peruvian “street food” bistro in Uptown’s Knox Village has come up with such delectable liquid garnishes to their dishes? Sure, sauces aren’t uncommon in Mexican cuisine, but the ones here go beyond mere picante salsa or mole. They complete the dishes in terrific ways.
Yet Alo’s style couldn’t be less like continental French food. Aside from the caf? tables you might find dotted along a Paris alley, the vibe is distinctly unpretentious. It’s the antithesis of fussy, even as it manages some oh-mama-that’s-good cooking.
Chef Julia Lopez takes what are undeniably ordinary grab-and-go items and updates them with simple yet sophisticated flavors. Each meal starts with complimentary puffed-corn nuts with a wedge of lime (a true peasant appetizer), but from there the dishes conjure up the prosaic qualities of Latin America cuisine while raising the level of the food.
Take the anticuchos ($9.75), three skewers of seasoned shrimp. You can pick up a version on any boulevard in Lima, but these are gussied up by a strawberry puree made subtly spicy with the inclusion of rocoto peppere (a Peruvian chile), the sweetness melding coolly with heat.
Ever-popular Tex-Mex staples like sarten enchiladas ($9.75-$15.50, ranging from chicken to a lobster-shrimp combo) become something more than everyday because the mole is teeming with chocolate flavor. The flautas ($9.75), although slightly greasy, came with a creamy pico de gallo and diced avocado, and the shredded pork was juicy. (Our biggest complaint about the guacamole was that it came with only a few thin chips to dip.)
The pork carnitas in the tacos de canasta ($8.75) are marinated in garlic, olive oil and green orange, but it’s the addition of several delightful salsas that puts the taste the over the edge: the pineapple pico de gallo charms then tongue, and the herbals notes on the tomatillo salsa cruda are intoxicating (all the ingredients are raw, giving a strong organic taste).
Sometimes, the sauces can overpower a dish. The volcanes ($9.75) sounded decadent: lobster with avocado, refried beans, corn tortillas and pineapple salsa in gooey asadero cheese. But all the extras tended to tower over the delicate but unmistakable flavor of the lobster.
Desserts (a surprisingly hefty $7.75 each) are also great. The chocolate mousse and orange Bavarian cream milhojas (the South American equivalent of mille-feuille made of layers of phyllo) was rich, but the sheets of pastry were so thick, eating it was a messy if pleasurable affair. A rum-infused warm callebaut chocolate pecan tart with homemade ice cream was delicious and not nearly as dense and heavy as we worried it would be.
The restaurant itself is as homey and friendly as the style of food suggests. Laminated sisal mats serve as tablecloths, the walls and menus are dotted with aphorisms about family and friendship, and flat-screen TVs broadcast sports (an increasing trend in even the nicer restaurants). There’s a warm buzz in the air that’s never outright boisterous, even when empty tables are scarce.
There is a price to such casualness. You can “get” the whole everyone-singing-in-four-part-harmony vibe (all the servers are listed by their first names on the menu) but still expect more attention. Service, as has been proven annoyingly true at other Borga-owned restaurants, is interminably slow if unrelentingly pleasant. The wait staff on each visit has smiled broadly and greeted us with ebullience.
But while water glasses usually remain (miraculously) well-filled, finding someone to deliver a check, offer a dessert or even clear away a used plate can be like waiting for Godot: There’s always hope, but don’t hold your breath.
Such delays can be mood-killers, especially if you have theater tickets or just something better to do than listen to the conversations of those seated at your elbow. A bad dish can’t be further ruined by spotty waitressing; a good dish can. And there are enough good ones here to keep you coming back so long as you keep in mind the loping pace when deciding on Alo.
Maybe that’s just a way to remind us: Life is better when you stop and smell the flautas.
Alo Cenaduria y Piquenos, 4447 N. Central Expressway (Knox Street Village). Open daily for lunch (brunch on weekends) at dinner. 214-520-9711.
Friendly, fun but not fancy, the food is accessible but unique.
Overall: Three stars
Food: Three stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: One and a half stars
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 11, 2008