One of the nicest things about living in Madison is the sense of community, and the kind of friends who keep you informed. So it was typical that my friend Doug Swenson was the person who introduced me to the original La Mestiza restaurant on Odana Road. Doug, who comes from a family of pioneering organic farmers near Spring Green, grew up on farm-to-table food. In his case, in fact, dinner was so locally sourced he could look out his kitchen window at the fields growing his meal, and the harvest he was eating. So he knows what real food tastes like, and he's spent time in Mexico as well. So I listened when he went on about La Mestiza's tostadas and guacamole. But it wasn't until the restaurant recently opened a second kitchen on East Main, just off the Square, that I really had time to sit down and fully appreciate his raves.
And he's right. Even in a town that has seen a real spurt of serious Latin kitchens in the last few years, the new La Mestiza deserves attention. The downtown dining room, at a time when restaurants are part flamboyant theater, won't draw much attention itself. In fact, the orange walls can seem a little claustrophobic; you feel like you're eating at the bottom of a terra cotta planter. And the acoustics, like all nonexistent acoustics these days, can turn a room of even subdued diners into a din.
But there is still a homey, intimate vibe to the place, and the menu is inviting. And there are three dishes that are pretty much perfect, which is all it takes to make a restaurant worth the time, and money. The first is the shrimp ceviche tostadas. Ceviche can be an acquired taste, and too often it's a one-note lesson in overstated flavor; the lime juice that defines ceviche frequently overdefines it, so that the tart marinade drowns out every other ingredient. But La Mestiza's shrimp ceviche is loaded with fat shrimp and the lime is used sparingly, adding just enough of a bright citrus kick to enhance the sweet taste of the seafood. Adding to this version of an open-face Latin sandwich is the crown of fresh pico de gallo and the crispy tostadas everything sits on. The whole thing has the clarity and coherence of a faultless bite.
So does the second memorable dish here, which also underscores something Mexican cuisine in particular doesn't get enough credit for. At its best, it's as complex, sophisticated and subtle as any world cuisine. If the shrimp ceviche proves that, so does the cochinita pibil entree. Pork is another thing that can go wrong because it's one of those meats that too often is simply tasteless, or picks up the flavor of whatever sauce it's smothered in. But La Mestiza's pork is marinated in achiote, slow cooked with citrus juice, wrapped in banana leaves, and served with pickled red onions. All those flavors come through, but none are overstated; they draw out the tender pork's own porky, perfumed taste.
Other La Mestiza dishes aren't as faultless. The chicken enchiladas, with a dusky Oaxacan mole, suffered - at least on the night we tried it - from dry, overcooked chicken. The chiles rellenos were big muddled torpedos, but then they always are. And a trio of tacos veered between very good (the tender pork again) and not so good (a tangle of that dry chicken again).
But dessert reclaimed everything, and came through with a third dish to remember. Tres leches (three milk) cake can be a soggy mess you want to wring out. But the La Mestiza rendition is light, almost airy, and soaked, with restraint, in sweet milk. The taste is redolent of a Wisconsin farm, a bit of Latin dairyland. And that's a match in the end that makes very good sense.