There’s nothing dumb about El Mundo except the waiter

Visiting El Mundo is like suddenly slipping into one of Frida Kahlo’s sunnier fantasies — not just because prints of Kahlo paintings can be seen from nearly every seat in the restaurant, but because the place blazes with festive colors and sounds. Here, a wall looks like the shell of a great pumpkin; there, a table is topped with roughly grouted pieces of miscellaneous tile; whimsically decorated blackboards tout daily specials. An open kitchen projects the cheerful chatter of hard-working pots and pans, and the air is rich with the scent of fresh herbs and tangy sauces.

Downstairs, there’s just enough room for a couple of dozen folks to squeeze in and eat — after first ordering at the counter, grabbing silverware and glasses from bins at the end of the room, and generally fending for themselves.

Upstairs, diners are served by a cadre of friendly but eccentric servers who cultivate a smiling irony that seems perfectly matched to the dancing skeletons that are probably hiding in some closet. On this level there’s a serpentine bar where folks can perch while sipping wine, craft beers, mojitos and margaritas. Or, um, studious types can investigate the long list of some 40 tequilas. (In fine weather, al fresco dining is available on the sidewalk or out back.)

Apart from the beverages, the best thing about that upstairs bar is the dumbwaiter. It’s a mechanical contraption that evokes dreams of Dickensian sweatshops and Disney cartoons. First you hear a loud thumping from the kitchen below, signaling that plates of food are ready to rise. Then a server grabs the handle, cranks like a whirlwind (or like a fast-pitch softball hero) and suddenly marvelous things start rising — maybe a burrito, maybe a taco or maybe a clever Mexican riff on an old classic — something like slow roasted lamb carnitas garnished with a mint salsa verde ($13.95), because yes, this is Mexican food, but it’s Mexican food with an ambitious culinary edge that emphasizes freshness, not only in the ingredients, but in the ideas.

One afternoon, my colleague Sara and I dropped in for lunch; we split an appetizer sampler called the Dipity Do ($5.95), generous servings of guacamole, tomato salsa, black bean dip and tomatillo salsa. Sure, the menu promised salsa made from fresh, rather than the canned tomatoes we received, and yes, it would be nice if El Mundo offered freshly made tortilla chips. But these are cavils. Better just to dwell on the pleasures: fresh herbs; the aroma and toothsome texture of judiciously crushed black beans; the chunky guacamole (Frida would scoop that stuff up in a minute); and enough of everything to satisfy three or four diners — or three or four peckish sippers.

For Sara’s combo plate ($7.95), she chose two options from a list of classic Mexican dishes (the plates come with sides of rice, beans, salsa fresca and sour cream). She opted for a crispy beef taco and a chicken enchilada (and yes, she did get her salsa fresca). Bite-sized chunks of grilled beef and the mellow, aromatic richness of shredded chicken made for a fine meal. (Vegetarians can fill their tortillas with black beans or vegetables, or select vegetarian tamales, $8.95.)
As much as I admired the look of Sara’s plate (a drizzled lattice of sour cream decorated her enchilada), my pan-fried fish tacos ($9.65) were a notch up in terms of dramatic presentation. Big chunks of cod were couched in lovely mixed salad greens (I suspect that if you searched high and low, you’d have trouble finding a half cup of the ubiquitous shredded iceberg lettuce that tops far too many tacos). I adored that cod: fresh, white, not a bit overcooked, but what surprised me was the succulent richness of the vegetables that were piled on top: broccoli, sweet potato and corn. They seemed wonderfully apt on a cold winter day. Let’s face it, a craving for vegetables doesn’t usually trigger the thought: “Gee, I think I need some Mexican food.” But the next time I have a yen for vegetables and only vegetables? Well, vegetarian tamales — You’re On Notice!
Even the humblest dishes benefit from El Mundo’s attention to detail. Consider rice, for instance. I did. I looked at several individual grains, inspecting the brick red devils, and found them good, sprinkled with a mild mix of spices that (based on a subsequent phone call) turns out to include chili powder, cumin and achiote, which adds a bit of exotic heat.

But heat is not the primary goal at El Mundo. Sure, there are jalapenos around, and other kinds of chiles, but the stress seems to be nuance and contrast.

Another recent evening, for instance, my wife Mary and I headed upstairs for drinks and appetizers (lime margaritas can be had for $3 on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the mojitos come garnished with a thick slab of sugarcane, which is, I suppose, a nice touch, though wasted on me). Along with the drinks and that oh-so-entertaining dumbwaiter, I found myself caught up in the smoky heaven of steamed mussels in a sauce of smoky chipotle peppers, garlic, lime and cream. Chipotle peppers, once an exotic ingredient, have begun to turn up on mass-market menus everywhere, but seldom as deftly as here, in a smoky, silky, deeply layered sauce that required me to sop it up with every crumb of the accompanying Blue Dog baguette.

El Mundo is located at 2345 Frankfort Ave. Hours are Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Major credit cards are accepted. The restaurant’s downstairs dining area is accessible for people using wheelchairs, but the restrooms, located behind the counter, are not. Call 899-9930.

By Marty Rosen
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El Mundo
2345 Frankfort Ave.
Call 899-9930
Rating: 4