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Authentic taste at Centerville’s Chiapas Mexican Grill

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Taco at Chiapas Mexican Grill; photos: Paula Johnson

Every time I review a Mexican restaurant (or any other type of cuisine for that matter) I always get asked “Is it authentic?” In the words of author and chef Anthony Bourdain, “I’ve seen zero evidence of any nation on Earth other than Mexico even remotely having the slightest clue what Mexican food is about or even come close to reproducing it. It is perhaps the most misunderstood country and cuisine on Earth.”

Although it’s great to find places that use recipes and ingredients from their native lands, is that what matters the most in assessing a meal? As food critic Ed Levine writes, “If something is delicious, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t authentic, as long as it’s not called ‘authentic.’” I’m in full agreement on this. Levine also points out something important to consider when thinking about Americanized versions of different cuisines – they are legitimate in their own right. Here, he is speaking specifically about Italian food, but Mexican (or any nation’s cuisine) could be substituted.

“Italian-American food is not authentically Italian, nor does it claim to be … And there is great, delicious Italian-American food carefully conceived and deftly executed using first-rate ingredients (there is of course lots of lousy Italian-American food as well).” Sadly, that’s equally true.

So now that we’ve dispensed with the preamble, we can get to a recent visit my lunch companion Alecia and I made to Chiapas Mexican Grill in Centerville. Chiapas focuses on dishes from its namesake southern region of Mexico. The restaurant’s space formerly and briefly housed a shish kebab place and another restaurant prior to that. It’s a small casual space with lots of parking and additional patio seating, which we didn’t choose due to the afternoon’s high temperature and humidity. The interior has the feel of a casual diner with booths and tables lining the narrow dining spaces.

Chiapas has a bar with margaritas and daiquiris plus Mexican beer selections, including Dos Equis Amber, Dos Equis Lager, Sol, Corona Extra, Tecate, and Modelo. They also have really tasty Jarritos sodas and horchata. Horchata is a common beverage in Latin American countries. It’s usually made from ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley, tiger nuts, or melon seeds. In Mexico, it’s almost always spiced with vanilla and cinnamon. (I reflexively ordered iced tea before checking the menu, so I didn’t try it, but I plan to next time.)

The menu isn’t huge but features enchiladas, burritos, rellenos, mole, tamales, fajitas, and tacos, as well as tortas, or Mexican sandwiches. There were a few unusual combinations on the tortas. One was topped with ham, chicken franks, and bacon and another with steak, chorizo, ham, and pineapple. I wanted to try a taco, as our server informed us it’s a signature dish, plus a chile relleno ($3.50). The $2.75 tacos are soft corn and filled with seasoned grilled chopped steak, chicken, grilled pork, carnitas, chorizo, or cow tongue. I tried chorizo and a chile relleno and liked them both, the taco especially. It came with lots of fresh onion, cilantro, lime, and a sprinkle of queso fresco.

Stew on This

Alecia and I both wanted to try something from the sopas (soups and stews) menu. She chose pozole ($6.49 lunch or $10.99 dinner) and I picked the caldo de rez (same price). Pozole is a favorite of mine. It’s a delicious soup with tender hominy and shreds of chicken, and in this case dotted with circles of fresh crunchy radish, making for a beautiful and colorful bowl. After squeezing the fresh lime which accompanied it, and though I wished for a little more of a spicy note to add to the depth of the broth’s flavor, I would rate this a fine effort and a dish I would recommend trying. Alecia and I agreed the caldo de rez had the edge in terms of flavor. The menu describes it as stew, but soup is maybe a little more accurate due to its brothiness. Tender beef chunks with potatoes, carrots, chayote (summer squash), and rice garnished with onions, cilantro, and lime is what the menu says, but I have to take issue with the meat being described as tender chunks. The beef was more like what my grandmother would describe as “soup meat” – big hunks of meat with fat and a little gristle maybe, but that’s what you want to make soup. I had no problem cutting it apart, easily using my fork to do so. My caution is for folks who might be expecting little manicured bites of beef. This isn’t that, and I’m glad. I loved tossing in heaping spoons of cilantro and chopped onion to add a fresh element along with the lime juice. These are both dishes for the approaching fall season, hearty, savory, broth-y, and flavorful.

Plan for Flan

When there’s flan, that creamy, egg-y Latin American custard, I’m in. My disappointment with Chiapas’ effort was the tarting up of the delicate flavor by squirting Hershey’s syrup and whipped cream on it, when it should be left to bathe solely in its sublime caramel nectar. So, plan for the flan, just ask for it stripped down.

If you ask me if Chiapas is the most authentic of Mexican restaurants, I can honestly say I don’t know, but I can say I really liked their approach of lots of fresh garnishes, lime, and queso fresco, instead of having everything swim in greasy oceans of low quality food service cheese. I like that they offer items like cow tongue and tortas and the soups I described. Chiapas is worthy of an investigation. Go and have a horchata and some cow tongue. You certainly won’t get that at Taco Bell.

Chiapas Mexican Grill is located at 298 N. Main St. in Centerville. For more information, please visit ChiapasMexicanGrill.com or call 937.949.3390.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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