Named in part after the popular Mexican song with the “ay, ay, ay, ay” chorus, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy marks the latest south-of-the-border-style eatery among the upper-crust environs of east Sacramento. A small gulch of Mexican eateries is developing here: Cafe Capricho at 32nd and Folsom Boulevard, Midtown Taqueria on J Street near 38th, and now the newcomer Cielito Lindo, which opened Sept. 20 at 37th and J streets.
Ramiro Alarcon serves as owner and executive chef, and local fans of Mexican food may recognize him as the former execuitve chef of Tequila Museo Mayahuel on 12th and K streets. Like his former restaurant, Cielito Lindo aims for a swankier approach to Mexican food with a combination of deep-rooted culinary traditions interpreted through modern techniques and ingredients.
But will Cielito Lindo break what seems to be the curse of this space? Longtime locals will remember the building as a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise before transforming into PGR Thai Noodle and the short-lived California Burrito. Prices are set at Cielito Lindo closer to a special-occasion restaurant than a place to grab a quickie chicken burrito on the cheap.
However, from an early taste of the lunch menu, Cielito Lindo is off to a solid start with its bold flavors and varieties of offerings. You just might want to ride your bike to try it instead of navigating the very cramped parking lot.
Menu: Our meal started with an approach straight from Caballo Blanco’s playbook: A small bowl of complimentary soup (in this case, the meatball soup known as albondigas) with a basket of fried tortilla chips. From there, it was obvious the flavors aren’t geared for touristy palates. A tasty appetizer of ceviche carried a notable afterburn, but added a nice heft to the fresh and citrus-y shrimp dish. We’d definitely order this again.
The enchiladas de mole, bathed in that classic sauce of indigenous Mexico, featured all the proper sweet and spicy aromatics and a pronounced blast of heat after spending a few seconds on the taste buds. The tender chicken, none of that stringy stuff, showed a proper slow-cooked technique and also held up well as leftovers.
The tacos de arrachera (flank steak tacos) were served as a trio and folded into full-sized corn tortillas. While not presented as the same old carne asada, the meat’s taste and texture was a bit stewy but the poblano chili strips and “Mexican cream” were appreciated touches. Note that this $9 lunch dish doesn’t come with a side of rice or beans. We’d be happier with two of these formidable tacos served with a small side for the same price.
The menu featured many intriguing options, including empanada appetizers, a Mexican-style spaghetti with roasted chilies, grilled lamb chops with nopales and swordfish al pastor. For dessert, we’ll try the charming-looking chocolate bowl filled with orange pudding and fresh tropical fruits.
Price point: The quality of ingredients and cooking are high, but you will pay for the privilege. Lunch appetizers range from $6 to $7, about the price of two street tacos with rice and beans from a taco truck. The selection of “main dishes” for lunch range from $9 (sopes, chicken and beef flautas) to $14 for a trio of flank steak tacos. All dishes, save for those steak tacos and the torta-like pepito aracherra, include rice and beans.
Dinner prices for entrees start at $17 for the mole poblano con pollo, and top out at $23 for the rib-eye steak with chorizo. Most items, including the Oaxacan pipian verde (green mole with roasted squash seeds and epazote), cost between $18 and $21.
Ambiance: The interior design team has done a commendable job in stripping this former KFC location of its Colonel Sanders-isms. The playful, multicolored walls and white tablecloths adds a quaint and elevated touch to the typical taqueria. Unlike the high-decibel vibe of many popular Mexican restaurants, we appreciated the relaxed vibe and ability to have a conversation without yelling over mariachis actually playing “Cielito Lindo” or a bachelorette party at the bar.
Drinks: We tend to gauge the authenticity of a Mexican restaurant if they sell Jarritos, the sweet sodas found at most time-honored taquerias and Mexican markets. Cielito Lindo didn’t pass the Jarritos test, but scored big points with their daily agua fresca. The featured flavor during our stop was a refreshing blend of celery and pineapple that would also make a perfect breakfast beverage. Otherwise, iced tea, coffee and a soda fountain are options to satisfy your drink needs. Alcohol license is pending.
Service: Your water glass is just about guaranteed to stay filled during your stay, and the kitchen was swift with filling orders. Service staff was highly attentive. They could ask “is everything OK?” about half as much, and you’ll still be in good hands.
First impressions: Bold flavors, thoughtful menu items and cooking techniques in a relaxed setting. We’ll be back, perhaps after pay day.
Try it if: You want to branch from the typical burrito gut-bomb and appreciate the intricacies of Mexican cuisine.
Forget it if: You’re looking for tacos on the cheap or a drive-thru to satisfy those “fourthmeal” cravings.