Damaged by fire more than a year ago, Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy in East Sacramento reopened in June, turning a hard-luck tale into a comeback story.
In September 2013, Cielito Lindo chef-owner Ramiro Alarcon – former executive chef at Tequila Museo Mayahuel on K Street – opened his white-tablecloth restaurant serving high-end Mexican food in a building, at 37th and J, that previously had held a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Thai noodle place and a taqueria.
Cielito Lindo had been open seven months and was building a loyal following when an early morning fire broke out in April 2014, burning office space and a kitchen prep area. Alarcon, a Mexico City native who came to the United States a dozen years ago, said last week, through an interpreter, that he suspected the fire might have been set deliberately. But the blaze’s cause is undetermined, according to the Sacramento Fire Department.
While working out details with his insurance company, Alarcon catered events and taught cooking classes. To passers-by, his restaurant’s long period in stasis suggested it had become another statistic – 27 percent of new restaurants close in the first year, research from Cornell University and Ohio State University found, and most of those restaurants did not catch fire. However, Alarcon always planned a comeback. And not just as the restaurant it was, but bigger and better. The reopened restaurant features new paint and additional seating areas carved out of kitchen space.
Alarcon’s sure-handed recipes and techniques (the new menu looks a lot like the pre-fire one) withstood the blaze intact. The “Mexican gastronomy” part of his restaurant’s name suggests food a bit fancier than what Cielito Lindo serves. There are no deconstructed chicharrones or other evidence of food dehydrators or blow torches in the kitchen.
But although his plating is traditional, Alarcon makes Mexican food that’s both deeper and lighter than the gut-bomb cuisine common to Mexican restaurants in the United States.
Dishes at most of Mexican restaurants lead with heat, salt and fat, and finish the same way. Alarcon’s food, by contrast, often delays full gratification. The complexity of some of his flavor combinations does not become evident until midway, or even most of the way, into a dish.
This happens with the excellent sopa Azteca, which starts with a tomato base that tastes nourishing on its own but benefits from its accoutrements, including tortilla chips and dried ancho peppers. As the soup sits, it absorbs the ancho’s properities, so that the last spoonfuls of soup carry the most heat, though it remains subtle.
Flavors within the pipian verde de pollo (green mole chicken) are similarly slow to reveal themselves. The dish first tastes primarily of chicken, which is fine, since the chicken is tender enough. But eventually, the nutty flavor of the dish’s roasted squash seeds breaks through, along with the acidity of its tomatillo content. What started out sweet and mild becomes more densely flavored, slightly sour and infinitely more complex.
The sweet-spicy intensity of Cielito Lindo’s (brown-black) mole poblano, which marries chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and dried chilies, shows itself from start to finish, in both the chicken-entree version and the chicken emmoladas (enchiladas with mole).
Alarcon uses black beans inventively. My favorite dish at Cielito Lindo is the enfrijoladas de pollo, or chicken enchiladas with black-bean sauce. Salty chorizo counters the sauce’s slight heat, and fresh-tasting corn tortillas and the perfectly seasoned shredded chicken within them hold up to the bean sauce’s heft.
Alarcon gets most of the basics right. The lightly roasted salsa, served alongside chips with every meal, goes light on saltiness and and heavy on smoky-bright tomato flavor. The tomatillo-based pico de gallo tastes fresh and light. The house agua fresca, made with celery, pineapple and parsley, tastes as wholesome as any newfangled cold-press juice. It costs $3 a glass, with free refills.
The chips are thick, and on one visit tasted freshly fried. On others, they tasted a bit stale.
A few of 15 or so menu items we tried were unexceptional, but only one was a bust – and that bust was the restaurant’s priciest offering. The $25 rib-eye was dry and lacked much flavor beyond its ancho-chili sauce.
Considering Cielito Lindo has been open 10 months total, its food is accomplished. And when factoring in its comeback from fire, one is tempted to use a phoenix metaphor. But “beacon” suits the place better.
Post-fire, Alarcon painted the restaurant’s interior a bright lime green and orange. During the day, as sun streams through Cielito Lindo’s frosted-glass windows, the colors look festive. At night, when the dining room’s overhead lights combine with outdoor lights just outside windows to create a brightness bonanza, the colors turn harsh.
If restaurants were assigned accompanying movie titles, Cielito Lindo’s would be “Everything Is Illuminated.” This, even though there’s a movie called “Cielito Lindo” (a Spanish term of endearment, usually applied to people, that translates roughly to “beautiful little sky”).
This lighting does not lend itself to romantic dinners, or to any dinner in which the lighting is not remarked upon. But given what Alarcon has been through, adjusting lights is no big deal.
Cielito Lindo already looks better than it did pre-fire, though the setting still does not match the food quality. A highly professional service staff – headed by genial, dapper general manager Ulises Ponce – does reach the food’s level, however.
But there’s only so much lipstick you can put on a KFC, and that might be OK.
Cielito Lindo’s food approaches that of Mayahuel, Zocalo and Centro Cocina Mexicana – other local Mexican restaurants with ambitious menus – in quality, though its decor renders it visual country cousin to those upscale city slickers. Yet Cielito Lindo’s entree prices, running about $14-$25, are on par with, or higher than, those other restaurants' prices.
One might consider Alarcon cheeky for charging those prices. But for my money, Cielito Lindo is the most interesting of the four restaurants. Within its mix of sophisticated flavors, busy colors and harsh lighting, one can see talent, trial, error, perseverance and a manifestation of one immigrant’s dream.
Cielito Lindo Mexican Gastronomy
3672 J St., Sacramento, www.cielitolindo.us, 916-736-2506
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Beverage options: Bottled Modelo, Negra Modelo and Victoria. San Antonio Winery chardonnay, cabernet and (bottled) sangria.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes.
Gluten-free options: No
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: Owner/chef Ramiro Alarcon turned parts of the kitchen into dining areas after an April 2014 fire, and painted the walls bright colors. But the interior lighting is way too bright at night, spotlighting the modest origins of a building that once housed a KFC.
Alarcon’s food is top-notch, servers are warm, friendly and efficient, and there’s an underdog quality to the space that holds its own appeal.
Several of the dishes we tried were exceptional, from the enfrijoladas de pollo (chicken enchiladas with black bean sauce) to a tapas appetizer and chicken with moles poblano and green. But the rib-eye, at $25 the most expensive item on the menu, disappointed.
Service ☆☆☆ 1/2
Standout. Servers remembered us, and what we had ordered, from one visit to the next. Service was quick apart from one dinner visit, when the check took too long to arrive.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Though I find the space charming, even when over-lit, it’s not quite at fine-dining level. So some prices seem a bit high. But Cielito Lindo offers a daily $10 lunch special that includes an entree (the excellent enfrijoladas de pollo on Thursday), plus a soft drink.