"I'D come back for this in a heartbeat" says one of the guys at our table, on the way to polishing off every smidgen of his vegetable-stuffed poblano chile at the new Amaranta Cocina Mexicana. On a whim, this usually carnivorous fellow had opted for the vegetarian chile relleno and is now hoarding every bit.
No problem. The rest of us are busy oohing and aahing over an impressive plate of pollo en mole poblano. It comes gleamingly sauced and whimsically plated with the chicken leg towering vertically over the breast. Meanwhile, as the Neanderthalesque barbacoa of whole lamb shank infused with garlicky ancho chile marinade makes its way round the table, each of us filches savory shreds of meat and wraps them in swatches of still-steamy, soft handmade tortillas.
Amaranta may sit in a suburban shopping center -- the newly revamped Westfield Topanga -- but it's clear that the owners, Cuernavaca natives Sylvia and Eduardo Rallo, have envisioned a restaurant that's much more than a place to grab a quick post-shopping bite. It doesn't aim to compete with either cheap-eats local taquerías, or with the Cal-Mex chains that serve up combo plates and a party-time vibe.
Instead, as is typical of Mexico City's semiformal fondas, the kitchen borrows favorite dishes from all around the country, then gives many of them a slightly gentrified edge. And then there's the tequila service, which is like a contemporary Mexican version of a serious wine bar.
There are 375 varieties of tequila on offer, ranging from $7 to $175. Aficionados can sip finely crafted añejos (aged more than a year) chosen from a list of about 110 -- perhaps a Cava Antigua ($21) or a Los Azulejos ($30).
A nice touch is the way tequilas are listed not only by age (blanco, reposado and añejo) but also by flavor impact (gentil, moderado, agresivo). In addition to fruit-flavored margaritas, 15 classic margaritas are on offer, each made with a different boutique tequila.
THE dining room's mood is relaxed, but not in a flip-flops and cutoffs sort of way. Unfussy decor, all light woods and spare lines, has an offhand elegance. Tall, dramatic arrangements of cactuses and succulents are hip yet hint of a Mexican landscape. There are wonderful upholstered booths to sink into, and it's quiet enough for civilized conversation. You can happily relax here for hours.
For the most part, the cooking has a lighter, cleaner quality than that served by your average burrito depot. Carnitas, succulent, tender and cut into dice-size chunks, while delicious, lack that extreme lardy funk some find appealing in the old-fashioned versions.
Dairy foods are used judiciously here as they are in many homes. Enchiladas suizas are generously stuffed with shredded, lightly creamed chicken. The fine Mexico City-style quesadillas mixtas, three large deep-fried corn and wheat flour turnovers, each filled with either chorizo, mixed cheese or poblano chiles, are a perfect balance of oozy filling to crisp, puffy crust.
The Yucatan specialty cochinita pibil rates among the best dishes here. Achiote-rubbed pork swathed in banana leaves and baked comes as an impressive mound of meltingly tender saucy meat resting on a banana-leaf triangle. Chile relleno stuffed with a beautifully seasoned mix of beef and pork rests on a not-too-hot chipotle sauce. With these and other entrees, you choose two sides: juicy, stewed black beans (or mashed in the style of Southern Mexico), undistinguished rice or sautéed vegetables.
This is not the place for the little whims or snacks that Mexicans call antojitos (tostadas, tacos, flautas). None are especially well made, and given their steep prices ($13 to $15) will disappoint many. The $16 spicy adobo-seasoned fish taco served with a fruity grilled relish sounds great but is dry and lackluster. I'd also steer clear of the ceviche. The good-quality fish is irredeemably bland -- as though its lime marinade has been rinsed off.
The cleverest (and most decadent) of the shareable desserts is churros -- a whole stack of the thin, sweet crullers -- freshly fried and filled with a thin rope of Bavarian cream. Coconut crème brulee is rich and tender, and the brownies made with Mexican chocolate (actually more like a cake) are subtly sweet, not cloying.
Amaranta has a small takeout shop that offers tortas (sandwiches), burritos, salads and several dishes from the regular menu, but it's the tequilas and entrees that lure us back. It's a welcome newcomer that, in the midst of our region's abundance of Mexican food, manages to carve out its own unique niche.
Amaranta Cocina Mexicana Location: 6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd. (Westfield Topanga shopping center), Suite 1029, Canoga Park; (818) 610-3599; www.amarantarestaurant.com. Price: Appetizers, soups and salads, $7 to $12; enchilada plates, $13 to $16; entrees, $12 to $18; desserts, $5 to $6. Best dishes:Cochinita pibil, quesadillas mixtas, chiles rellenos (de picadillo and de vegetales), cordero en barbacoa (lamb shank), Bavarian cream-stuffed churros. Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, until 10 p.m. Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Free garage parking (Owensmouth Avenue garage). Full bar, espresso coffees. All major credit cards.