Authentic Mexican food, from guacamole to the sopas, at Liberty Square’s Los Molcajetes
I am sure that you, like me, have seen a molcajete or two but never knew their correct name. Molcajetes are those primitive looking mortar-and-pestle bowls invented by the Aztecs but still used today, cherished by generations of Mexican families for grinding the complicated array of spices for sauces such as the divine Oaxacan red or black moles (pronounced “mo-lays”) that incorporate a dozen or more laboriously hand-ground ingredients.
The vest pocket-sized restaurant Los Molcajetes is across from Veterans Park in Norwalk, on Liberty Square, which is close to busy Washington Avenue and the always bustling Maritime Center. But it feels like an island if its own, detached from the rest of the city.
You may have recently read that there is a squabble going on between the merchants on Liberty Square and the city of Norwalk about parking spaces. When I ate there on a recent Sunday, there were lots of places to park, so don’t let this municipal issue stop you from going.
Los Molcajetes is a very simple place. Not at all fancy, with no money wasted on decor except for a few colorful festive lace paper flags and a Hispanic-themed painting or two. On its menu it calls itself “Seriously Authentic Mexican” food. I could not agree more. From the plebeian atmosphere to the honest working man’s dishes, it is hard to remember you are in Connecticut. It is light years away from the big Mexican chains.
There is a surprisingly large menu for a tiny restaurant. You can eat breakfast here (major-league huevos rancheros) and then you can eat small meals by just ordering from the appetizer list. There are times when, as a restaurant reviewer, I am the most boring eater around. This means I always order guacamole and chips. But there is an agenda to my mediocracy, because good or great guacamole is a sign that this kitchen knows what they are doing. I loved the guacamole here. It is not the smooth green “paste” we so often see. Rather, it was finely minced avocado with onion, cilantro, lemon juice and a handful of spices.
I took a very long time to order because for a tiny out-of-the-way restaurant there is an amazing variety of exotic and familiar dishes. I ordered pollo a la diablo, a thin breast of skinless chicken bathed in a Christmas-red hot sauce. It was delicious, but I have to say that the rice and beans served alongside were the stars of the show. I then ordered the chile rellano, a big fat green fresh poblano pepper served with red or green sauce to your taste. The big pepper is stuffed with Mexican cheese, dipped in flour and egg wash and deep fried. I was impressed by how non-greasy and well done this was, and yes, it was sided by the great beans and rice. Like guacamole, chile rellano is a commonplace item, but can also be a good barometer of the quality of the kitchen.
I was less crazy about the beef ranchero style I ordered with the green chile sauce. It was a decent plate of food but lacked the punch and panache of the other menu items.
On other trips I enjoyed the incredibly inexpensive ($3!) sopes. A sope, also known as picadita, is a traditional Mexican dish originating in the central and southern parts of Mexico, where it was sometimes first known as pellizcadas. It is has an unusually thick tortilla and is layered like a sandwich. It was unusual to see this dish on a menu but one worth a reorder.
I especially liked the spicy pork sope as well as the chorizo sausage one served here. They are both unusual and first rate. Layered on top of the meat (and under the thick tortilla) is sour cream, lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. A true belly-busting meal for a bargain price.
211 Liberty Square, Norwalk; 203-831-9921
May I remind you that “sope” is not “sopa.” Sopa, my friends, means soup and again this is a great choice at Los Molcajetes. You can get a large bowl or a small one. I tried a large (translation HUGE) sopa de marisco (a seafood soup). Somehow the nautical setting of this small eatery makes seafood shine. You can see the shoreline from the front door and it is fun to know that a stone’s throw away at the Maritime Center are exotic sharks, octopi and scores of beautiful rainbow fish not headed for a soup pot.
If you follow my column regularly, you will know that my specialty is finding small out-of-the-way “mom-and-pop” restaurants. Los Molcajetes fills the bill and as the city of Norwalk and the residents of Liberty Square battle away about parking spaces, just enjoy the traditional and well-done Mexican food.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.