Señor smoke

Apr 16, 2003 at 12:00 am

Before you sit down to eat, you’ll notice that someone with an eye for design has been at work for Señor Rafael López. His walls are a sunny, warm coral, and the oblong room is lined with framed mirrors. Black, lattice-back chairs are spare and classy. Utensils come wrapped in a black paper napkin ring decorated with bright peppers.

These are the sorts of small touches that indicate someone is paying attention. The only definitively Mexican accents are a cross above the cash register and a terra-cotta clock with turquoise bulls’ heads marking the quarter-hours.

If you’re not in the area much, you should know that the part of town where Mexican immigrants live and eat has expanded way beyond the Vernor-Bagley-Springwells matrix, and now covers a lot of the territory south of Michigan Avenue. It feels like a new restaurant opens every week, and I’ve long since given up on keeping up with them all.

But a food-astute co-worker tipped me off to Señor López. Much of the food here is as good as any other southwest-side restaurant’s, and some of it is head, shoulders and thorax above.

My friend had singled out the chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), a dish I stopped ordering years ago after too many experiences with heavy breading. The two poblano peppers López serves for $6.50 are not only barely dipped in egg batter, but they have a delicious smoky flavor, a result of being grilled and peeled. The Muenster inside is a creamy counterpoint. Since I work nearby, I know I’ll be ordering this dish again and again.

Another reason to skip the Bagley strip and head west on Michigan is the López beans, which are whole, not mashed and refried. They’re cooked fresh every day, without lard. In fact, there’s no lard in the whole restaurant.

And here’s another example of the small touches that make a difference: The tomato-based dipping sauce that comes to the table with the tortilla chips is hotter, smokier and tastier than most — worth eating on its own, not just as a time-killer till the appetizers arrive.

When they do, you’ll presumably have ordered a big $3.50 plate of guacamole, chunky and infused with lime, obviously freshly made. This is a better idea than the chipotle wings — picante and tasty, to be sure, but served with celery sticks and a blue cheese sauce that’s less than a poor cousin to a real Buffalo wings sauce.

Mexican cooks don’t like to do a lot of chopping when they make chicken soup. You’ll have to do that yourself to the carrots, celery stalks, big hunks of potato and drumsticks served in a large pretty bowl. But vale la pena (it’s worth the trouble). The rich golden broth glistens with fat; the generous breast meat is moist and tender. As I write this, it’s snowing hard. As terrific as this soup is, I can only hope that by the time you read this we won’t be in need of winter comfort food.

One of López’s pricier items, at $9, is a whole tilapia, and I do mean whole; nothing has been omitted. It’s crisp and crusty, in the Mexican fashion, and, again, worth picking off the bones.

López serves breakfast anytime. I would pass on his cactus and scrambled eggs, because the cactus bits (nopales) just don’t have much flavor. But I liked his chilaquiles, with their hot green tomatillo sauce cooled by a dollop of sour cream. Note that this is not the eggs-and-tortilla chips dish usually called chilaquiles around here. In Mexico City, manager Rosa Cruz informed me, that would be migas (and it’s good too).

Other dishes I sampled — cheese quesadilla, carne asada, flan, beef taco, cheese enchiladas — were pretty standard. Next time I’ll be trying the tamales (pork and chicken), the ceviche or the mole (red or green). For the truly down-home, menudo and pozole are on the menu, and so are shrimp cooked six ways.

Señor López doesn’t have a liquor license yet, so check out the good array of Mexican drinks such as horchata, tamarindo and jamaica.

This wonderful place is open every day 7 a.m.-11 p.m., and credit cards are accepted.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].