Four years ago, we profiled every restaurant on Federal Boulevard in our Federal Case series. Now we're doing the same on Havana Street, from East Hampden Avenue up to I-70. Join us on our culinary journey, which begins today:
Driving down South Havana Street, you could easily miss Molcajete Mexican Restaurant. Like many eateries worth trying on this stretch of strip malls, bingo parlors and antique shops, it doesn’t look like anything special — until you pull around the corner of the building, which is at 1911 South Havana. There, in front of the restaurant, is the first of many pleasant surprises: a shiny sculpture by Salida artist Jimmy Descant titled “The Steam Plant,” created from repurposed steam irons and light fixtures.
Inside, the surprises continue: At the back bar, you’ll find a sign posted by Molcajete’s owner, Alfonso Anaya, that reads, “Food so authentic, Trump will want to build a wall around it.”
The scenery continues as you feast your eyes on an array of Mexican art and sculptures adorning the restaurant’s walls and shelves. The servers, all smiles, warmly greet and swiftly seat you. If you’re looking for a quiet place to dine, the front of the house is the ticket. If you’re ready to tie one on and get rowdy with some of the bar's seventeen margarita selections, head down a hallway that leads to the back of the space. The two rooms are separated enough to provide the right ambience, no matter what you’re looking for.
Speaking of just-right experiences, you know what’s better than free chips and salsa? Free chips, salsa and refried beans — which is what you’ll get the minute you sit down at Molcajete. And these refritos are the real deal, made with rendered animal fat and not the nasty hydrogenated shortening sometimes used to cut corners. It’s a small touch, but one that immediately sets the tone before you even glance at the menu.
Although the restaurant offers a large variety of the typical Mexican fare such as quesadillas, chimichangas, burritos and enchiladas (all in the $8 to $16 price range), the chicken mole ($12.95) is tempting for its smoky-sweet sauce, flavorful but delicately spicy — so it won’t singe your tastebuds or make your forehead bead up with sweat. Anaya also recommends the signature molcajete, a dish named for the lava-rock bowl in which it’s served. A molcajete is a large mortar and pestle traditionally used to grind spices, mash avocado and make salsas. The stone vessel comes to your table piping hot and brimming with meats, fish, cheese and bubbling tomatillo sauce.
Most entrees come with rice and beans; the pepper- and tomato-tinged rice tastes just like the rice my grandmother, who lived in Mexico for the first sixteen years of her life, used to make. The owner confirms that many of the recipes were created in Guadalajara, home of the original Molcajete restaurant.
To accompany dinner, Anaya recommends the Vallarta margarita, which adds fresh lime juice and a splash of orange juice to the traditional cocktail. And if that’s not your thing, you can choose from a large list of specialty drinks and Mexican beers. Happy hour is Monday through Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m., with half-price appetizers in the back bar.
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After enough of those happy-hour libations, you just might be in the mood to sing your favorites on Thursday and Saturday karaoke nights or try your luck at poker on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Sunday nights, the special is Texanas fajitas for two ($29.99), served to the delicate sounds of a Peruvian guitarist stationed in one corner of the restaurant — a setup that avoids that awkward moment at other Mexican eateries when the mariachi band comes to your table while you’re mid-bite and drenched in enchilada sauce.
The waitstaff, comprising mostly friends and family of the owners, is well-trained and friendly yet professional. Anaya believes that service helps his restaurant stand out from his competitors. “If you go to a restaurant, you expect great service and you pay for great service," he says. "Because if it’s not great, you’ll stay home. The food can be the best in town, but if the service is bad, nothing else matters. Service is number one in my restaurant.”
While the service is undeniably good, the real reason that Molcajete earned itself a must-return spot on our list of Havana Street restaurants is the traditional food that accurately, and deliciously, reflects its old-world roots.