Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Gringos & Chilangos heats up the Mexican scene

Walking down Yangon’s Bo Aung Kyaw Street on a calm Sunday afternoon, I did not expect to stumble across the threshold of a new Mexican restaurant.

Photos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesPhotos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

Perhaps I should have, as the once-rare eateries have proliferated at an exponential rate in the past year. But even as it enters a crowded field, Gringos & Chilangos has the atmosphere, location and originality to woo scores of customers from other Mexican eateries.

The door is the first thing you’ll notice. And trust me, you’ll notice – the heavy, arched, towering portal into Gringos & Chilangos evokes the medieval ages. I’d call it oaken, if I knew anything about wood varieties, but for now I’ll settle with “functionally artistic”. In a town full of sliding glass panels and open-air garage entries, the presence of a proper, even luxurious, doorway is a sign of good things to come.

Inside, handsome bulbs with distinctly visible filaments hang from clever pipe fittings along the ceiling. Their glow amplifies the warmth of a mostly wooden interior and combines with a soundtrack of Spanish guitar riffs to create an atmosphere best described as cosy. There’s even Diego Rivera prints on the wall.

Such ambience, something that is commonly sacrificed in the generally fluorescent-lit realm of Yangon restaurants, is abundant at Gringos & Chilangos. It is entirely intentional, and part of the establishment’s origin story.

The name Gringos & Chilangos translates to “white guys and Mexico City guys”, a tongue-in-cheek take on the ownership trio of Peter Wilson (Irish), James McLeod-Hatch (British) and Hector Vivero (Mexican). The story goes that the Irishman and the Mexican were talking about the lack of restaurants aimed at expats in Yangon back in November 2014, and the one said to the other, “What if it were Mexican street food?”

McLeod-Hatch was brought into the fold soon after, and together the three got to work assembling the pieces. While McLeod-Hatch focused on transforming a former electronics store into a welcoming eating space, Vivero travelled back to his home town in 2015 to interview potential chefs, devising an innovative test for each: Given an avocado, some corn, some peppers and a tortilla, what could they cook up?

Dios mio, what can’t they cook up? Having tried nearly the entire offering of tacos and quesadillas on the menu, I have nothing but faith in the chilangos in the kitchen.

My dining compadre and I tackled the quesadillas first (K1500-2000), complete with a side of the homemade queso fresco (K1000). Though I certainly enjoyed the bean and beef quesadillas, the surprising favourite was the mushroom-dense quesadilla con hongos. The mushroom, nearly as meaty as the beef, packed an added punch of zest.

And though the homemade queso fresco was a strange thing to call cheese, I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s not exactly cheesy in the sense you might expect, but the creamy lightness paired well with everything we tried. It was worth the extra K1000.

From quesadillas we jumped to tacos, which I noted to be slightly larger than those available at Fahrenheit and of similar size to those at Mañana. For K2000 apiece – or three for K5000 – they are fairly priced. Although the tortillas themselves were almost soggy from the sauces within, the too-soft shells were positively stuffed with flavour. My favorite was the carnitas (pork), a succulent and tender iteration, though my dining partner took a special liking to the tinga de pollo (chicken) and its unique tomato and onion marinade. The special of the day, a lamb version, was actually my least favourite, as I found its taste too subtle to be deemed “special”.

Perhaps the best value on the menu was the small cup of esquitas (corn soup) for K1500. It featured a zinging hint of lime laid across spicy-sweet corn and complete with homemade mayonnaise. I don’t normally go for mayonnaise in soups, but in the case of esquitas, I don’t think I’d try it any other way.

Drinks proved just as unusual as the food. I sprung for the paloma (K8000), a light and refreshing (if slightly fruity) beverage of grapefruit, pomelo, soda water and tequila, but it was my companion’s michelada mango (K4500) that truly sizzled. A strange mix of beer, tomato juice, lime, Worcester sauce, Tabasco and seasonings offered a savoury sensation hard to accomplish through drink alone. The chilli salt drizzled around the rim had both of our lips steaming.

The small desert menu offered just two options, and since the churros weren’t available yet I went for the platanos con crema (bananas with cream). Though delicious, I couldn’t help but think K3000 was a little much for what is essentially a banana with cinnamon and melted toffee.

As the over-eager (read: typical) waiters cleared the table – something they were itching to do throughout the meal – a post-dinner sense of satiation washed over me. I thought back to that calm Sunday afternoon when I’d first stumbled upon the big pretty door on Bo Aung Kyaw Street, and I smiled.

Gringos & Chilangos will host an invite-only grand opening on February 6 and plans to be fully opened on February 8.

Gringos & Chilangos
257 Bo Aung Kyaw Street, Kyauktada

Restaurant Rating: 4/5 stars
Food: 8
Beverages: 8
Service: 7
Value: 7
X-factor: 10

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