Last year in North Carolina, I did a long story on the culinary impact of Latinos. North Carolina, with one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, is now home to an amazing variety of Latino restaurants, and particularly Mexican restaurants. On a Saturday afternoon, you can drive around and sample pozole stew from all regions of Mexico. During my research for the story, I became quite obsessed with the stuff, acquainting myself with the differences between the red, white and green versions that different towns in Mexico serve and claim as their own. Now, with a restaurant in Virginia-Highland named Pozole, there's hope that my affection for this pork and hominy stew that is traditionally made from boiling a pig's head for hours will spread to the less adventurous eaters among us. That is, if the version made here is any good. With Wisteria's chef Jason Hill involved, I expected it would be.
Now that true summer is upon us, there is no better place to celebrate than on the patio of Pozole with a "Perfect" margarita. Even on the balmiest of evenings, the place manages to celebrate the heat rather than wilt under its weight. I never saw the restaurant's predecessor, but I love the look of this incarnation, from the bar, to the wood-and-glass doors that open onto the sidewalk once the sun lets up, to the patio that invites as if it were a friend's front porch. The restaurant's decor evokes Mexico but is firmly rooted in urban Atlanta style. As is the food.
But let's start with a margarita. Here they are made with shaved ice, kind of a rocks/frozen hybrid. The Pozole margarita is the cheapest and is perfectly acceptable, especially on nights when they run it as a $4 special. For those of you who long for a classier version, the Perfect is lovely, with Grand Marnier and Cointreau. The jalapeño margarita is made with juice from the canned peppers and is kind of like a spicy pickle drink. It seemed strange to be drinking salt and vinegar with my tequila, and I missed the sweetness of the original, but Pozole's managed to make the drink work, and the scientist in me appreciated the trick.
So, back to the pozole. You can get the stew in a cup or bowl, and it is a balanced, totally non-offensive version that may well initiate the masses to the joys of the dish. Well, perhaps joy is too strong an emotion. The funk and heat of the versions I came to love from the kitchens of Mexican grandmothers was absent. I wanted something, a little more spice, a little more soul. But it is a matter of taste and not execution. Pig's head is not for everyone.
While the vibe at Pozole is über-casual, service is quite particular. Drinks are described in detail, whether you ask about them or not, as is the menu. It's a nice touch, although by my third visit I wished they offered the standard "Is this your first time dining here?" before launching into the spiel. But it's a minor complaint -- I'd much rather have too much information than a server who slings food he hasn't tasted.
Pozole does serve one dish that is completely authentic, and that is the tortillas. They burst with corn flavor, whether they are grilled up for a kid's simple quesadilla or are wrapping the two fat lobster tails that comprise the lobster tacos entree -- which at $22 is the most expensive thing on the menu and also a complete bargain. The authenticity buck stops there, but its replacement is fun, fresh and complements the margaritas.
The tuna crudo is a spatter of raw tuna cubes that resemble small jewels drizzled in citrus and chilies with chunks of avocado. Spearing the small chunks one by one was vaguely annoying -- I longed for a whole bite of the stuff -- but the dish zings with flavor.
If I lived nearby, I'd be at the bar at least once a week for the mussels, which are served in a broth of tequila, with tomatillos, corn, lime and cilantro. The tequila is mellow and does more to bring out the other flavors than to rear its own feisty personality. Once they arrived at the table, I barely took a breath before they were gone.
It's the bright and lively dishes like the mussels and the crudo that Pozole does best. A lime and coriander roasted chicken was satisfying, with a bright salad of cucumber, avocado and red onion on the side. Enchiladas with green mole were nice but didn't stand out. Honestly, the green enchiladas I make at home are better -- perhaps that's not a fair comparison, but it's true. I liked the tacos, but also thought they lacked the pop and swagger of some of the more original dishes. Then again, those tortillas wrapped around some juicy, slow-roasted pork might be just what the mixologist ordered if you're in the mood for some finger food to go with your jalapeño margarita.
Tiny churros with chocolate dipping sauce are reminiscent of french fries, but if the deep-fried cinnamon fingers don't win you over, then you're too grown up for your own good. By my second visit, I was rushing through my entree to get to them.
So while I may not get my fix of pozole here that often, I will come back for the deck, the margaritas, the mussels and those squiggly churros -- for celebrating the summer and perhaps the fall. I'll keep coming back to appreciate a neighborhood spot that aims a little higher, and gets it right.