Everybody’s an expert on real Jersey bagels and pizza, New England clam chowder and whole-belly fried clams. Don’t even get them started about authentic Mexican food and real Maryland crab cakes.
PUNTA GORDA’S NEW TWIST ON MEX
Americans claim to crave authentic Mexican food. But many just don’t like it.
Carne asada’s too chewy. Menudo turns their stomach. Forget about tripa and lengua.
They’d rather have their flour tortillas, crunchy tacos, seasoned ground beef, glops of sour cream and yellow shredded cheese — none of it authentic. Yo quiero Taco Bell.
Port Charlotte and North Port have, over the last several years, gained eight Mexican restaurants — only some of them somewhat authentic. Punta Gorda has only one: Isabel & Annabel’s on W. Marion Avenue.
Smelling opportunity, Gustavo Martinez and Serafin Estrada have opened another Punta Gorda Mexican restaurant, in Mint Thai Cuisine’s former location at Cross Trails Center.
Thinking better of their original name — El Corona (“The Crown”) — they changed it to El Dorado Mexican Grill.
Just two weeks before opening El Dorado, the suave Martinez was waiting tables at Longboat Key’s upscale Chart House. He’d always wanted his own restaurant and still can’t quite believe he’s made that leap.
But Martinez is surrounded by staff whom you’ll recognize from other local cantinas and a co-owner who knows his way around a Mexican kitchen.
Until recently, Serafin Estrada was a partner in Englewood’s wildly successful Mexican-owned Zarate’s Family Restaurant. Estrada shuns the limelight, but the recipes that set El Dorado apart are his.
Originally from Mexico City, Martinez knows authentic. He describes Estrada’s menu as both Tex Mex and authentic (a Mexican wrote it, after all), with smart little twists to appeal to American tastes.
Unlike pencil-thin, taquito-like versions, their flautas are chubby little puppies, slightly sweet, served with corn and black bean salad plus a smooth avocado cream that’s bound to become El Dorado’s signature sauce.
Their chile relleno is no deflated creature lying in an ooze of gravy. It’s a crispy-crusted, filling-stuffed meal the size of a grapefruit.
Never mind that fajitas are Tex Mex inventions. Here, the stir fry’s tender, and a compact little molcajete holds fixings so tasty you can eat them like salad.
In short, customers won’t care whether El Dorado is authentic.
When asked what’s different about his recipes and flavors, Estrada said, simply, “They’re better.”
El Dorado Mexican Grill ($$, M), 941-621-8630, 615 Cross Street (Cross Trails Center, behind Starbucks), Punta Gorda, is open Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 9 p.m.
MARYLAND CRAB CAKES COME BACK TO PLACIDA
Five facts about the 8501 Placida Road location of the new Chesapeake House:
1. It’s seen three different restaurants in less than that many recent years. Old-timers can recall at least six previous venues, including Jam’s of Cape Haze, Trattoria 13 and two Villa Capri incarnations.
2. Since Placida Grill’s demise, it’s the only restaurant in Cape Haze Plaza.
3. New owners tend to reopen the doors in record time, always confident they’ll beat the odds.
4. Drawing even more of a crowd than its dining room is a spacious bar with a chummy crew of happy-hour regulars from Rotonda, Cape Haze, Gulf Cove and Grove City.
5. This ain’t the joint’s first Maryland crab cake.
Crab cakes are notorious authenticity hot buttons. People from anywhere within hailing distance of Maryland are rabidly picky about them.
Some insist you hold the Old Bay. Others eschew remoulade. Some say bake, some say fry. Everybody forks the cake open to inspect it for filler and claw meat. Too much and they sneer, “That’s not a real Maryland crab cake.”
When Annie B’s Beef N Booze opened to this tough crowd in June 2018, Annapolis-native owner Denny Workman served what diners started calling the best Maryland crab cake in town — hearty chunks of lump crab scarcely dusted with filler and liberally mixed with Old Bay, with a remoulade side.
Now, more native Marylanders — Joe and Christy Cascio, and daughter Heather Edge, from Anne Arundel County — have opened Chesapeake House at 8501 Placida, claiming real-deal, half-pound Maryland lump blue-crab cakes, crammed with crab and seasoned with Old Bay.
“They fall apart ‘cause there’s so little filler,” said Joe.
Before retiring seven years ago, he ran an Italian restaurant on the Chesapeake Bay and a bar in the pub-packed Fells Point waterside district of Baltimore.
He couldn’t get the restaurant business out of his blood.
Not only did he miss the career he’d grown up in. He found himself being served “Maryland” crab cakes that made him wonder: Where did these people learn how to make a crab cake? He finally couldn’t take it anymore and started making his own again.
Crab and Chicken Chesapeake headline his trim, reasonably priced menu of Maryland-style appetizers, sandwiches and entrées. But it’s crab cakes that always cause a commotion.
Even before Chesapeake House opened its doors, locals went wild at the promise of having real Maryland crab cakes again.
Chesapeake House ($$, M), 941-214-5971, 8501 Placida Road (Cape Haze Plaza, by Ace Hardware), is open Monday to Thursday noon to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10 p.m. Full bar.