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Wednesday, July 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
Eats

FOOD AND DRINK

At Mi San Juanito, indulge in a mini trip to Mexico
Fanfare for the common flauta


Credit:Carolyn Fath
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Mi San Juanito is a Mexican bakery, grocery and deli in the strip mall next to the Copps supermarket on South Park Street. Just inside the entrance a display case is stocked with a variety of standard Mexican pastries - delectable things like conchas (sweet-topped bread) that will tempt you to commute through this corridor if you don't already.

Shelves harbor all the necessary ingredients to cook Mexican meals at home, including one of those giant festive Mi Costenita spice racks on which hangs an improbable number of spices in neat cellophane bags.

A cooler running along the length of one wall contains everything from fresh tomatillos to Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. Not only is there Mexican Coke, but the rarer Mexican Pepsi. Both still use sugar cane instead of the corn syrup that has rendered the U.S. products tasteless. As a result, they are ideal not just for sipping - with intense caramel flavors - but for cooking as well. Try either in a barbecue sauce.

In back, there's a deli/butcher counter and another display cooler for cakes, flan and brightly colored jellied desserts, all made in-house. The butcher case has marinated asada (beef), breaded chicken Milanese and other marinated meats, as well as some typical cuts. Excitingly, there is cesina - salted, dried beef, an acquired taste that quickly blooms into an addiction.

Although Mi San Juanito is mostly a takeout business, a big picnic table covered in a checkered tablecloth sits next to pallets of Jarritos soda and potatoes piled high on AstroTurf.

Food from the deli counter is fast and meticulous. The menu has the familiar tacos, quesadillas and burritos, but also some less expected choices like "Healthy Food" (a Caesar-esque salad) and "Tlacoyos" (description below).

Tacos here arrive a touch fuller than normal, almost requiring a fork at first, and the corn tortillas seem especially fresh - soft and steamy with that signature nutty flavor. Cilantro and onion are in generous supply, and the two sauces - red and green - are floral and spicy. At $1.75 they are a good deal.

In the burrito, chicken is cut to small, slightly charred chunks, and combined with the sharp cojita cheese to provide a strong umami note. A few strands of iceberg lettuce lend crunch, and thick crema binds it all together. It is richly flavorful and satisfying.

The chilaquiles are some of the best in town: a truly enormous mess of thick chips, black beans, cheese and green salsa. There is no set breakfast menu yet, but you can order chilaquiles with eggs on top for a traditional and immensely crave-worthy start to your day. If you've ever been, it will instantly take you back to mornings in Mexico.

Flautas are large and nicely fluted to retain the cheesy chicken. They are mellow inside with tangy queso on top. Maria is usually the cook during the day, and if asked she'll tell you this is the thing to order. She is right - they are phenomenal.

Tlacoyos are similar to huaraches but smaller, more torpedo than sandal-shaped. They are vaguely similar to a Salvadoran papusa. Here they come three to a plate and are a bright green from piles of cilantro, set off with generous streaks of white crema. Traditionally they are consumed with nothing but salsa, but here they also come with beans and a protein of choice.

The "healthy dinner" isn't particularly low calorie but is a surprisingly great example of urbanized Mexican cuisine: a bed of crispy lettuce, cubes of queso fresco, deeply flavorful buttery brown croutons, and lots of thin slabs of char-grilled chicken. Curious, but mightily delicious.

Mi San Juanito's lively interior makes it a fun place to visit for either dine-in or carryout. The butcher counter has accessible options ready to grill, and the food surpasses expectations. If you do stay to eat, it is likely you will be asked several times if you enjoy your food. You will.

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