THIS TIME OF year it's easy to work up an appetite standing in line in the Italian Market. One of the options for an inexpensive recharge is one block south of Washington on 9th Street at Moctezuma Restaurant. Here you'll find a pick-me-up gordita, quick Mexican sandwich or leisurely dinner.
Yes, Moctezuma is an unfortunate name for some of us who may have bad south of the border vacation memories. Put those aside, though. Owned by the familia Hernandez, Moctezuma is an expression of their Mexican cuisine and ancient culture. Moctezuma was the last emperor of the Aztec civilization, which was perhaps best known for its remarkable calendar stone and reverence of the sun.
You will, however, have a clash of modernity with the homage to antiquity. A large mural depicting Aztec mythology contrasts with the loud flat-screen TV airing the improbable plotlines of Latin soaps. And the walls of the 14-month-old establishment definitely need a little paint touch-up.
But, it's easy to overlook those flaws when you speak with manager Andres Hernandez. The menu proudly proclaims "one hundred percent" Mexican food.
He is passionately committed to promoting his heritage growing up in the region of Puebla. He also infuses the menu with dishes from cosmopolitan Mexico City.
Moctezuma does more lunch business during Market hours. You'll find plenty of tortas (sandwiches), tortillas and tacos to fit that bill. But the dinners really showcase what Hernandez is trying to accomplish.
A good sign of that "one hundred percent" claim was when the complimentary homemade red and green sauce with fried tortilla chips arrived at the table. Both were delicious and so addictive it was difficult to attend to menu selections.
We began sharing a few dishes with the table. Beef Gordita ($5) was a large round made with fried corn dough made with masa harina and stuffed with shreds of seasoned beef. An eminently shareable snack.
An order of quesadillas ($8) provides a choice of three. The tortillas for the quesadillas are made in-house and it shows in the texture.
The favorite of the table was the squash flower with cheese. If you are a fan of stuffed Italian zucchini blossoms, you'll enjoy the similarity. The carnivores at the table liked the beef quesadilla; however, the vegetarians found the mushrooms with cheese a little bland.
The table shared a Cactus Salad ($7) layered with nopales cactus, sliced onion, tomato wedges, and avocado slices dressed with oregano and vinegar and topped with Mexican grating cheese. While this would be better in the summer with in-season tomatoes, the textures and flavors blended well.
For a main course, Hernandez recommended the Chicken Moctezuma ($12) as representative of his style of cuisine. It was a large portion with two boneless skinless breasts, poblano pepper, corn kernels, and a soft Mexican cheese. Side dishes included ultracreamy refried beans, rice, and salsa ranchera.
Not all Mexican cuisine is hot and greasy, and there are differences between the regional styles of Mexican cuisine. In Puebla you will find the dishes have rich layered flavors and an emphasis on filling homestyle meals. This region is most known for developing mole - the complex sauce that often uses chocolate for richness.
Our hungry man taster at the table ordered Tampiquena ($14). This is a large portion of sliced steak with pepper, onion, guacamole, beans and one red enchilada. The meat was tender and the enchilada added to the overall richness of the meal.
Our pescatarian (vegetarian with some fish options) taster enjoyed the Fish Veracruzano ($12.50). This tilapia filet came with the traditional sauce of onions, tomato, olive, and capers. What I had never tasted before, and found most impressive, was the preparation of the jalapeno. It was sliced lengthwise and deveined. The flesh was then cooked to a point of tenderness and sweetness with barely a hint of heat.
The shrimp quesadillas ($10) was my least favorite of the dishes. This was a blend of shrimp and mushrooms and seemed to lack substance. The accompanying guacamole and rice were the highlights of the dish.
There are three dessert choices on the menu - Flan Napolitano ($3), Sopapilla ($3) and Coktel de fruta ($5), a granola and fruit blend that sounded way too healthy for us, so we shared the flan and sopapilla.
Hernandez explained that the Flan Napolitano actually translates as Naples flan - as in Naples, Italy. According to Hernandez, there is an Italian influence in the dishes from Mexico City. Whatever its origins, this custard is not to be missed.
One of my favorite Mexican desserts is sopapilla - a fried dough often served with honey. I prefer the simplicity of that combination to the sweet addition of a strawberry sauce on this dish, but, in my book, you have to go a long way to make fried dough disappointing.