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Home of the Bees—and the Beans, and the Chiles . . .
By Laura Leon

Xicohténcatl
50 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington,Mass., (413) 528-2002. Serving dinner daily 5-10, brunch Sat-Sun 11-3. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: Regional Mexican
Entrée price range: $11 (cauliflower in red sauce) to $16 (lamb in parchment with herbs, spices and red sauce; trout in red sauce)
Ambience: upscale peasant
Clientele: eclectic mix of old and new Berkshires

Among the most memorable food I ever ate was in an open-air shack on the beaches of Xtapa, Mexico. There, as the sliver of a hot afternoon’s sun dipped into the ocean and maritime breezes lapped at bare, bronzed skin, my host/bartender presented a platter piled impossibly high with the most luscious, pale coral-colored shrimp, freshly shelled and ripe for the taking. The combination of the open air (always appetite-enhancing), just-caught shellfish and its accompanying condiments of sea salt, limes, chopped tomatoes and cilantro, remains an special moment in my culinary awakening.

Sadly, it is often next to impossible to find such beauty on the menus of American Mexican restaurants, where goopy, orange cheese sauces and undistinguishable beans reign supreme. However, I am heartened by signs Xicohténcatl in Great Barrington, Mass., is heading in the right direction.

Pronounced she-ko-ten-kat, the restaurant’s name comes from a Tlaxcalan warrior prince and protector of Tlaxcala, chef Angel Espinoza’s homeland in Mexico. The word means “home of the bees” in the Nahuatl language, and indeed, on our first visit there, during a flawless, sunny late-summer’s day, bees flitted betwixt and between the vine-encircled columns of the porch’s outdoor dining area. Not to worry, as human and apiarian coexisted peacefully, with only occasional visits by the latter into our freshly minted mango-peach smoothies ($5).

On that day, my family and I enjoyed a leisurely, utterly delicious brunch, punctuated by the freshest eggs I’ve tasted this side of Spain and the equally fresh, clean notes of cilantro and other herbs. I had the chili rellenos de espinaca ($11), and although I feared a deep-fried, congealed cheese mess, what I got was firm, fresh poblano chilis stuffed with a delicate mix of spinach and cheese and topped with a piquant pink salsa.

My heat-fearing (in food, that is) mother was thrilled that her vegetable burrito ($7), containing grilled zucchini, eggplant, carrots, onions and poblano chilis, didn’t set her to perspiring, while my husband, who is less phobic about such things, liked the heat and spiciness of his huevos con chorizo ($7), which melded chipotle en adobo, cumin and other spices, tomatoes and refried potatoes created a flavorful taste sensation.

Overall, this al fresco brunch was a reminder of my earlier forays into outdoor dining à la Mexico, and we looked forward to returning to try dinner. While the same helpful staff and cozy, warm atmosphere (albeit, this time indoors) were to be found, this dining experience was slightly less perfect.

The menu is a bold and exciting listing of unexpected offerings, straying far from the usual burritos and fajitas. Appetizers include camarones machos ($9), four jumbo shrimp sautéed with butter, lime and a touch of jalapeno, and guaranteed to leave you clamoring for more. There are many nonmeat choices, such as crepas de hongos ($8), wild mushroom crêpes in a light cream sauce, and the subtle, complex frijoles con queso ($4), which finds smashed pinto beans transcending their innate humbleness when combined with epazote (a strong herb somewhat similar to coriander), cilantro, onion and feta. The success of the guacamole de xicoh ($7) rests on its base of perfectly ripe avocados, tomatoes, jalapeno, onion and lime.

Given the fresh taste of so many components to the Xicohténcatl menu, it was disconcerting to be served, as a side dish, rice dotted with what resembled a Swanson’s frozen mixture of corn, peas and diced carrot. The rice itself had a pasty quality that did a disservice to the mains, both of which were outstanding. My husband’s lamb adobo ($15) featured tender, juicy nuggets of meat stewed in a blend of chipotle and spices. This was food to both inspire and sustain. My carnitas (“little meats,” $13), tangy-seasoned slow-cooked pork served with grilled scallions, grilled cactus leaf and roasted red salsa, was a tender concoction marred only by having been slightly overcooked.

Other tantalizing choices included molé oaxaca, in which chicken is served within a concoction of onion, garlic, several varieties of chilis, ground seeds such as sesame or pumpkin and known as pepitas, and a small amount of Mexican chocolate. The idea that chocolate is cohabiting with animal protein sends many diners looking toward the chicken burrito, but the chocolate merely adds richness, not sweetness, to the sauce.

The restaurant provides a children’s menu and is genuinely friendly to kids, as the number of families dining there proved. (Additionally, there were a number of childless couples as well as older, well-heeled looking parties.) Having filled up on chips and a variety of salsas, including borracho (pasilla chilis and tequila), mexicana (fresh tomatoes, serrano chilis, cilantro and lime), and verde (tomatillo), my kids were too full to eat much of their chicken-and-cheese quesadilla and chicken burrito. What I tried of both impressed me in the quality of the ingredients, but disappointed in the absence of flavor. Why not impart a little heat and spice when, as has been shown time and again, kids love flavor?

Among the desserts offered are a mango cheesecake (a special on this night), which married the seemingly incompatible old-fashioned cheesecake notion to the lush, New World paradise of mango; flan covered with a caramel sauce; creamy rice pudding; flambéed mangos with tequila; baked plantains, and bread pudding with sliced almonds, raisins, vanilla, cinnamon and brown sugar.

Its name may be a mouthful, but I’m willing to bet that Xicohténcatl will be on everybody’s lips come “the season,” when it might be more difficult to get a table. If you head over to the Berkshires sometime during the colder months, you can acquaint yourself with the intriguing Mexican food that Espinoza is offering—before the summer people, and the bees, return.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


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