Feb. 17 2010 12:00 AM

La Estrellita brings authentic flavors to the table



It’s hard to drive more than a few miles in this area without passing some manifestation of Mexican-inspired cuisine. Small grocery markets, roadside stands, fast food, and both franchised and locally owned restaurants — some of which have burgeoned into chains in their own right — line the streets promising authenticity.

La Estrellita, which opened last August near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Holmes Road in a space formerly occupied by Mr. Taco, won’t emblazon “authentic!” on its signage because they’d rather let the food do the talking.

Owners David Sarmiento and Crystal Cruz, a husband-and-wife team whose families are from eastern and central Mexico respectively, say the best way to convince diners their food is bonafide is to feed them something the two might make at home.

“We didn’t put ‘authentic’ on the sign because too many other people do, and they don’t necessarily have it,” Sarmiento said, preferring instead to persuade with recipes gleaned from his and Cruz’ families.

The couple (he’s 25 years old, she’s 23) works seven days a week, from open to close, and much of that time is spent in the kitchen, preparing or cooking through rushes.

“We try to make everything from scratch, nothing’s pre-made or frozen,” Cruz says, “like I do in my kitchen at home.”

Few dishes say authentic Mexican cuisine better than ones made with molé. La Estrellita’s chicken enchiladas de molé poblano ($7.99) is a tasty meal that comes with beans, rice and the obligatory chips and salsa. The molé poblano, which uses ground poblano peppers as a base, is a thick, complex sauce the color and consistency of melted chocolate, which it also uses as a primary flavoring, among a number of additional seasonings. It’s robust and rustic at the same time, both slightly sweet and bitter with a touch of heat — just enough to tingle the outside edges of your lips and tip of your tongue.

The shredded chicken enchiladas in corn tortillas are blanketed with the rich molé poblano and topped with creamy, snow-white queso fresco (“fresh cheese”).

Complimentary red and green salsas come with chips made on site. The salsa verde, with cilantro and a citrusy flavor from the tomatillos it’s made from, is fun and lively. The red salsa has more bite and brightness.

For sensitive palates, a sip of rose-colored hibiscus water, with its mild, refreshing sweetness, or the creamier cinnamon rice milk douses capsaicin-fueled fires.

Tacos come as a meal or a la carte with an interesting mix of ingredients. You won’t find lengua (cow tongue, $1.99 each) and chicharron en salsa verde (pork rinds in green salsa ($1.75), at Taco Bell. Tripe tacos won’t come through a fast-food window either.

While lots of Americans talk about wanting authentic options, Sarmiento says some of his unique items are balked at.

“A lot of people take my word that the tripe taco is good and like it, but others won’t even try it,” he says.

Sarmiento stays in touch with
his sister-in-law in Mexico to glean recipe ideas. He also occasionally
visits Mexico and can’t help noticing some major lifestyle differences.

“There, everyone walks everywhere and there are little stores on almost every corner,” he says.

“People will go out in the morning and buy fresh tortillas and go home and cook breakfast with hot tortillas. It’s great.”

Up here in Michigan, though, with speed important
to so many, Cruz and Sarmiento have compromised. They gave up making
homemade tortillas because it took too long, but they plan on staying
true to their identity as a sit-down restaurant. In a former fast-food
building, though, with a drive-thru window still attached (though
disabled) some customers have misplaced expectations.

“At first, some people didn’t understand that this wasn’t Taco Bell or Mr. Taco,” Cruz said.

have suggested they reopen the drive-thru, but Sarmiento says he’s
reluctant; he remembers sitting in line at a fast-food joint once,
amazed at the impatience of people in cars around him, honking at the
unbearably slow service: Five minutes is just far too long for some to
wait for a greasy meal in a bag, apparently.

“The people who do come in tell me they like our food, though,” Sarmiento says. “That’s a good sign.”

La Estrellita

S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 1 a.m.-9 p.m Monday- Thursday; 11
a.m.-10 p.m Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.(517) 882-9550
TO, SF, $$