When it opened in 1994, and for several years after that, Centro Cocina Mexicana was one of the coolest, most interesting and delicious restaurants in midtown.
It didn’t accept reservations and on some busy weeknights, it often took more than an hour to get a table. You could wait for your name to be called at the enterprising and often jam-packed bar, but good luck finding an empty seat.
Centro, back then, stood out because Kurt Spataro, the culinary force behind the Paragary Restaurant Group, had introduced to Sacramento a somewhat scholarly and impassioned take on Mexican regional cooking. He gave south-of-the-border dishes an artistic, upscale twist while remaining true to the integrity of the recipes.
The burritos were loaded with flavor and assembled with elegance. The refried beans were so smooth and tasty, they made you rethink this simple staple. The rice – plump, tender and consistent – showed a real respect for the craft. The larger, more involved entrees paid equal respect to flair and tradition. The mixed drinks, made with fresh-squeezed juices and seasonal ingredients, were ahead of the craft cocktail revolution in Sacramento.
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Spataro is a compelling curiosity as a chef. It’s well known that he took classes with Diana Kennedy, the author, advocate and arbiter of all things authentic in Mexican cuisine. The menu at Centro is a reflection of Spataro’s love for Mexican food and the lessons he learned at Kennedy’s culinary shrine in Mexico City. When he was serving terrific pizzas at Spataro, which has since been replaced by Hock Farm Craft & Provisions (another Paragary eatery), Spataro also went through training and achieved certification from an association in Naples charged with upholding the rigid standards of Neapolitan pizza.
Clearly, the chef puts in the time and effort required to capture a food’s soulful spirit. But is it authentic? Does that even matter? If someone makes an inauthentic burrito, for example, and it blows your mind, are you going to send it back because no one ever used, say, Wagyu beef or pickled daikon in Mexico? Kennedy has said that she finds it hard to eat Mexican food when she returns to the United States because so much of it is inauthentic. For that, you can either admire her commitment to standards or conclude that she fails to understand how food changes and evolves according to time, tastes and geography.
For me, authenticity is often beside the point, especially when it comes to Centro. The food was very good back when it opened, and it’s just as good today. The burritos, especially with carnitas, remain absolutely wonderful. Don’t be fooled by the upscale vibe. Despite the new competition from the likes of Chando’s and Lalo’s, the Centro burrito is still among best around. Two pork dishes, the cochinita pibil (Yucatan-inspired slow-roasted pork with smoke and citrus notes) and manchamanteles (slow-cooked pork in a sauce of ancho chilies and pineapple) are among the best things on the menu.
The ceviche, served as an appetizer, offers a citrus-y ping on the front of the palate with a lingering spicy finish from the Serrano chilies. My favorite appetizer is the “huaraches,” or masa cakes in the shape of a sandal or shallow boat, topped with black bean puree, chicharrones, salsa and cabbage. The texture and earthy-corn flavor of the masa, and the array of flavors and textures of the toppings, make for a satisfying and delicious starter.
My least favorite appetizer is Centro’s take on quesadillas. If you’re expecting a standard version of a tortilla filled with cheese and folded over, don’t hold your breath. You’ll be alerted by your server that these are more like empanadas. On the menu, the quesadilla is described as a “crispy masa turnover,” and the empanada as “crispy masa pockets.” Either way, they are a mild letdown.
By contrast, the best quesadilla in Sacramento these days – the playful, creative and delicious kimchi quesadilla at Tako Korean BBQ – would make purists like Kennedy either scoff or snarl.
If you’re bothered by its lack of “authenticity,” you can always make Kennedy’s recipe for sesos para quesadillas. The main ingredient is calf brains and includes Kennedy’s prep advice: “Cover the brains with cold water and leave them soak for at least 4 hours.” (OK, so not everything authentic translates so seamlessly from culture to culture.)
Centro’s food has always been more or less mainstream – comforting and eminently accessible – and for good reason. Nestled on a bustling block in midtown, its target audience is very mainstream. So don’t expect lines out the door for weekend menudo, and you don’t have to worry you’ll see or smell calf brains.
But with that comfort comes a few issues with the cooking. Sometimes the seasonings are too much on the safe side, resulting in dishes that are uncharacteristically timid, if not bland. The pollo en mole negro was disappointing for this reason alone. This dark sauce, made with charred chilies, seeds and chocolate, among other things, was visually appealing on the plate with the chicken, but its flavor was underwhelming and its texture watery. At a restaurant of this caliber that serves this style of cuisine, a mole dish should be among the most interesting and delicious items on the menu.
The huachinango al pastor was also a concern. Unlike the chicken with mole, it has a richness and complexity that is appealing, with grilled rock fish, a red chili rub and spinach-and-grilled-pineapple salsa all stimulating the senses. But on one occasion, the fish was past its prime and jarring to the palate. To double check, I ordered it on a subsequent visit and the dish was superb.
The desserts are also reasonably good, including perfectly made crepes with very nice peaches.
Centro is also among the best places to visit for tequila, though it is no longer the only locale around with a vast tequila selection. Still, its margaritas and selection of infused tequilas are both first-rate.
So with food that’s largely on point and drinks (excepting the disappointingly small selection of craft beer) in the upper echelon of local bars, how does Centro stack up at the ripe old age of 20? In its heyday, my predecessor, Mike Dunne, awarded Centro 31/2 stars.
The only thing that has changed, when it comes to the matter of assigning a rating to Centro now, is Sacramento. Specifically, the Sacramento restaurant scene.
Since Centro opened, our region has seen a flurry of growth in its dining industry, with plenty of creative, energetic people entering into the fray. There are more good and excellent restaurants now than ever. In that regard, Centro faces the same predicament as 33rd Street Bistro, which I reviewed in July. When both places opened in the mid-’90s, they were hot spots that attracted the hip crowd and served food that was so good it raised eyebrows and inspired raves.
But while 33rd Street Bistro has seemed to stagnate, eventually falling behind newer, more compelling eateries, Centro has held up much better. Now, there is simply more competition when it comes to upscale, casual Mexican food. Nevertheless, the food at Centro is generally better than the food at Ernesto’s and Zócalo, though the setting at Zócalo is arguably more elegant and attractive for the cool crowd of the moment. But the food at Mayahuel, that relative newcomer on K Street downtown, is in my estimation more dynamic and creative – and cooked with more assertiveness and skill – than the fare at Centro.
After all these years, Centro is still a good bet for Mexican food that mixes artistry with comfort. It’s just no longer out there on its own, no longer seen as a game-changing venture, and for now, no longer at the top of the heap.
Centro Cocina Mexicana
2730 J St.
Hours: 11:30 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thurday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then 4-9 p.m.
Beverage options: Full bar, with a huge selection of tequila and a number of quality craft cocktails
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Ask server
Noise level: Loud to very loud
Ambiance: Stylish, modern, rustic and energetic
Overall * * *
This was a daring concept and exciting restaurant when it opened 20 years ago. It’s still a good bet for quality Mexican food in an upscale, casual setting. Centro was an enterprising restaurant in its day and, even as part of the old guard, it remains near the top in a much more crowded field.
Food * * *
The pork dishes are among the best things on the menu, including the top-notch carnitas burrito, cochinita pibil and a slow-cooked pork dish called manchamanteles. Desserts are also good quality. Other recommended dishes are the huaraches and ceviche, both appetizers, and the carne asada (grilled flank steak) and the spicy chorizo burrito with potatoes and roasted poblano chilies.
Service * * *
The service is consistent, attentive and personable.
Value * * *
The portions for the entrees are ample and priced in the mid-teens. Given the quality of ingredients and cooking skill, this is a very solid value. Many of the mixed drinks are in the $9 range, which is competitive in the craft cocktail category.