The unassuming pale avocado bungalow rests back from the bustling action of Rainey Street, a few succulents dotting the landscaping.
El Naranjo's cute façade hides a deep, attractive space that features a tiny bar area, two dining rooms and a back patio. Walls split between soft bleached wood and chestnut-colored wainscoting and handsome wooden floors create a sense of rustic warmth.
The beautiful restaurant, owned by renowned Mexican chef Iliana de la Vega and husband Erenesto Torrealba (they also had a restaurant of the same name in Oaxaca until 2006), has blossomed from its humble beginnings as a food trailer that sat on the same space for a couple of years. They opened the restaurant in May.
Service blends modesty with refinement, as raw materials are used to create charming items such as stone salsa serving platters and woven bread baskets. Tables sit beneath elliptical linen lamps and gentle Latin music fills the dining areas that, even when crowded, never become too boisterous thanks to newly installed sound-absorbent panels that match the restaurant's overall aesthetic.
Thick homemade tortilla chips arrive with a mild, smoky red salsa and spicy green salsas, as well as a refreshing escabeche that tickles the palate with its vinegar tingle. A dense guacamole ($8.50), studded with bits of tomato and onion, delivers just the right amount of salt and citrus.
Don't be fooled by the word "enchilada" on the appetizers menu when you see enchiladas placeras de jícama ($8.25). These street-food-style snacks from Western Mexico don't come wrapped in tortillas. Instead you'll find jicama, stacked like pancakes and topped with dark green strips of lettuce and a colorful brunoise of potatoes and carrots, bright with shades of red from ancho and guajillo chiles.
The light dish could have used more of the heat from diced jalapenos and guajillo-laced topping, but the finely diced carrots showed off impressive knife skills, as one would expect under the supervision of Culinary Institute of America instructor de la Vega. A word of warning (that fortunately was passed along to us by our server): That carved ring of orange pepper is not a bell pepper. It's a manzano chile, which is much hotter than a serrano. Proceed with caution or risk ruining your palate until the flan can arrive to put out the flames at dessert.
The vuelve a la vida seafood cocktail ($10) indeed revives. The extremely generous portion wakes you with a sweet kiss of electric tomato sauce, spiked with pieces of jalapeno. Though the octopus put up a bit of an expected fight, the excellent shrimp were plump and shredded crabmeat ample.
The smoky, rust-colored sauce draped over the sea bass in the Yucatan dish tikin xic ($22) suffered from too much sweetness, but compelled with its sour citrus splash and pungent herbs. The bass itself was thick and impressive, a light touch of the fork revealing smooth ivory shards. Spinach only whispered its iron presence in the dense masa dough of the accompanying tamale.
At her restaurant in Oaxaca, De la Vega rotated moles on a daily basis, representing the state's seven regions, according to a 2002 story in the Seattle Times. Here she features pipian and yellow moles on the menu. She also offers a weekly mole special. A recent mole de la semana ($22) from Puebla had a depth of flavor and complexity unlike any I've tasted in Austin.
Chocolate fortunately takes a back seat to the robust, earthy flavors of toasted sesame seeds, raisins, cloves and a quartet of peppers (ancho, mulato, pasilla and chipotle). The dark sauce blankets the entire plate for an artful presentation. And though de la Vega told the Seattle Times, "The meat is not important. The sauce is the dish," the duck served with the mole de la semana was impeccable. (You can choose between chicken, pork or duck.) A crispy belt of skin shimmering with a sheen of fat circles the purple-centered mid-rare medallions of bird.
An equally brilliant, tangerine-colored sauce covers the chile poblano relleno de picadillo Oaxaqueño ($17). Almonds lend milkiness to the velvety tomato sauce that bathes the dark olive-green chile poblano. The pepper offers a sturdy resistance that requires a knife to access the juicy filling of braised pork flecked with raisins and tart capers.
A basket of corn tortillas provided sauce sopping, and the stone radiating heat from the bottom of the stack exemplifies the thoughtfulness at El Naranjo. Servers have a strong knowledge of the menu and exhibit a dignified professionalism, and remove used silver and exhausted plates in a prompt manner.
The small bar does not offer much seating, but does produce excellent cocktails, including a tart pisco-based Jamaica sour ($11), made fuchsia with a swirl of hibiscus water, and the La Fresa ($10), a tequila-based drink that lets strawberries and lime find a sweet-sour balance.
Off-menu desert offerings rotate, but let's hope the coconut flan, smooth and creamy with alcohol whispers of vanilla and shreds of coconut, appears with regularity.
The El Naranjo food truck teased with promise, filling regulars with anticipation for what was to come. Settled into their gorgeously appointed new home, de la Vega and Torrealba have delivered on the promise, executing dishes that boast a depth and complexity that can come only with time and knowledge.
Rainey Street has developed into a jungle of raucous night life, a host of bars overflowing with crowds on an almost nightly basis. El Naranjo serves as a welcome oasis, a calming culinary port in the middle of the vibrating scene.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam
85 Rainey St. 512.474-2776, ElNaranjo-Restaurant.com
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$9.50. Entrees $17-$23. Desserts $8-$9.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Amidst the craziness of the jam-packed Rainey Street district, El Naranjo is an oasis of calm, offering quality traditional Mexican cuisine and professional service in an elegant setting.
Notes: Bar and botanas service until midnight Thursday-Saturday.