You won’t see burritos and chimichangas on the menu at any of the El Centro restaurants. But if you wanted one, they’d be happy to make you one, said owner/chef Allan Rodriguez. In fact, they’ll make anything you want, and if it’s unfamiliar, they’ll run out to a market to pick up the ingredient.
“We are flexible with the menu, anything we want, they want enchilada with asparagus, add some chipotle, we're here for the customers,” said Rodriquez. “We don’t have a kids' menu, because we can make them whatever they want. Kids also like our egg dishes.”
The chef recently opened the third location of El Centro in Belmont, his biggest space of the three, after putting in the floors, ceiling and copper bar by himself and his brother, who also has a background in construction. Many accent pieces and furniture were picked up during Rodriquez’s frequent trips to Mexico, including the tiles, artwork, and the raw wood tables. The bathrooms are works of art, including a painted toilet in the ladies’ room. He rubbed the wooden tables with charcoal and burned them to get the right effect.
Rodriguez comes from a restaurant family in Hermosillo, Mexico, in Sonora. A successful contractor, Allan was working on a project in the South End when he met the owners of a little café that he used to frequent. They hit it off, and Allan decided to take over the Shawmut Avenue space and fulfill his dream of opening his own Mexican restaurant, and making recipes he grew up with, and using authentic ingredients, 90 percent of which are from Mexico, he says. Brookline followed, and Belmont, when he was visiting Stone Hearth Pizza and saw the space was opening up. His restaurants have earned many Best of awards, and a loyal following.
While I’m not qualified to answer the debate about what’s authentic Mexican or not, the menu was creative and everything was delicious. The homemade tortillas were his father’s recipe, and the menu is largely based on the food he grew up preparing and eating in Mexico.
This is only the second restaurant in Belmont to have a full liquor license, and it drew a full crowd for a Wednesday night, including families. The 12-seat copper bar was also full.
We started with a Michelada and a spicy sangria. The Michelada is I believe a Texan bloody Mary: Mexican beer, lime juice, spices and tomato juice with a salt-rimmed glass. It’s odd at first, but then it grows on you.
The Spicy Sangria was steeped for days in an oak barrel hand-rubbed with jalapeno peppers; this is a serious sangria. Good heat, but not too spicy. Later we also had a tasty Mojito, which was traditional style, not too sweet, and just a hint of mint, for a refreshing summer drink.
Other drinks of note include Watermelon Sangria, Strawberry Margarita, Margarita Diablo, Spicy Mango Mojito, and an array of Mexican beer including Tecate, Modelo Especial, Sol, Pacifico, and Bohemia, along with azul agave; no tequila brands were listed.
The menu is a little like a Chinese menu. They don’t quite describe what you’re getting, but everything you get is great, at least what I tried.
Both paired well with the freshly roasted and smoky salsa and house-made chips. We also dipped our chips into the Estilo El Centro Tres, guacamole topped with chorizo, tomatoes and white ricotta cheese crumbles, and it’s our new fave Mexican app. The Pibil (marinated pork) on corned dough tartlets, was also topped with the slightly spicy chorizo. The Empanada, filled with juicy marinated pork, had the flakiest crust and served with served with a Chipotle and roasted garlic cream sauce that I also used on the pibil. Loved that sauce.
For entrees, Allan highly recommended his carne asada, which he calls the best in the world. It’s charcoal steak, Sonora style, with sides of refried beans, guacamole and pico de gallo, and a tortilla to eat it together. At $22, this dish is generously portioned, but you can also try the carne asada in a $5 taco. “It’s from the second best meat producer in Argentina. They got Guinness Record for carne asada.” I’ll take his word for it. Tacos and other dishes have a choice of vegetarian refried beans, pibil (marinated pork), chicken, barbacoa shredded beef or chorizo.
Allan also urged me to try the taco fish, which he uses pollock, for an authentic taco recipe that he borrowed from his neighbor, who opened a store next to his family’s taco stand in Baja Mexico. “He shared our extension cord in the taqueria,” recalled Allan, who uses pollock, and it’s in a light chipotle and cilantro dressing, on a corn tortilla.
We also tried one of the dishes from the lava stone (Molcajetes) section, which they also have in the Brookline restaurant: the food is cooked in lava stone, like the bowl in which you get guacamole served. Salmon al Molcajete en Salsa Tatemada (Salmon on lava stone immersed in roasted sauce with melted cheese) is in a rich chunky tomato sauce spiked with grapefruit juice and bits of asparagus, and topped with mozzarella and muenster cheese. It’s a pretty unique dish, full of flavor.
We followed up with dessert: a puddingy tres leches cake, which was a simple yellow cake with creamy frosting; the dairy in the recipe makes the sponge cake richer, aka "three milks cake”).
Chef Allan says he’s happy with the direction his restaurants are going. “In four years, the most important lesson that I’ve learned is to be innovative,” he said. “If a customer wants something, I’ll Google the sauce and we make it. The regulars know what they like.”
El Centro, El Centro Dos, and El Centro Tres
Lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, lunch 11 am to 3 pm and Dinner 5 pm 10 pm everyday.
El Centro Tres, 66 Leonard Street in Belmont. (617) 484-1515
El Centro Dos, 236 Washington Street in Brookline. (617) 232-4200
El Centro, the original, 472 Shawmut Avenue (617) 262-5708