The cliched mantra in real estate is “Location. Location. Location.” This chant applies not only to residential real estate but also to eateries. For a restaurant, unless you’ve established a loyal clientele, you want to be where the people are. However, too much of a good thing can be too much of a good thing.
El Naranjo is wallflowered among the hustle and bustle of the Raney Street District, a residential neighborhood that completely flipped into an entertainment district over the past 10 years and is now slowly being smothered by billowing hi-rises (ironically being built because of the entertainment district). Rainey Street has a lot of energy, but it’s the wrong kind for El Naranjo.
For starters, parking is like trying to find a civil political discussion on Facebook. Oddly, for a restaurant of its price point, El Orange doesn’t offer valet (probably because it can’t find parking either!). We arrived 7ish and ultimately parked in a dusty lot for $16 ($8 an hour). And this was a quiet night since UT was playing a home game during our foraging. El Naranjo may be more about servicing downtown Uberables rather than locals.
During the day, Rainey street is busy but laidback, but as the sun sets, it’s about getting big D drunk. In the 15 minutes we spent on the street walking to and fro El Naranjo we negotiated no less than three bachelor/bachelorette parties (you can tell because these celebrations of the soon-to-be-sexually-shackled are wearing matching t-shirts). Besides boding the coming end of the scene in Austin (a friend says that Nashville is sadly nothing but bac[t]h parties these days, although an Austin bac[t]h party did get us a soccer team), they completely occupy the sidewalks, forcing passerbys into the street to dodge DDWDTWDDs (drunk drivers who drunk text while drunk driving) and HFBOESs (horny frat boys on electric scooters).
So, when finally entering the quiet and refined confines of El Naranjo, we were dusty, already $16 in the hole, and somewhat frazzled from pre-marital binge drinkers and inebriated navigators.
Fortunately, the service at El Naranjo is timely and attentive. Our hiply tatted greeter quickly found our reservation and led us to a small room with our table. El Naranjo is housed in one of the bungalows from when the neighborhood was a neighborhood. Although the small room was crammed full of tables, it was cozy but not (too) crowded. Nonetheless, eavesdropping is easy. If you plan to share electoral information gained from Russian trolls (or about how Black Soldier Fly larvae are used to industrially process pig manure, as we were discussing), you’d be better off choosing a different place.
Our waiter was kind and patient and knew the menu well. The bride ordered the special margarita ($9) and, wanting mezcal since we were eating Oaxacan, I went with La Llorona (Union Silver mescal, muddled ginger, agave nectar, pineapple juice, hibiscus; $12). The bride described her margarita as oddly flavorless (and, no, we are not those people who prefer their ritas swimming in sugar). “Delicate” might be a kinder word with a hint of lime (and her buzz suggested it wasn’t watered down). My drink, on the other hand, was flavorful.
For an appetizer, we chose the ceviche of the week, which came with a basket of thick, crunchy chips ($16). The ceviche was fresh and delicious and paired perfectly with the hunky chips. The complimentary mini-ciabattas and dips were an unexpected treat, especially the salsa macha: chunky, spicy, and rich. Ciabatta is not exactly Oaxacan, but it’s the perfect tool for enjoying the spreads.
For the main course, I went with the maple leaf duck breast and traditional Mole Negro de Oaxaca (made with more than 30 ingredients including chilhuacle, almonds, pecans, sesame seeds, peanuts, and a hint of chocolate; $30) while the bride went with the shrimp and Mole Amarillo de Oaxaca (made from chiles, tomatillos, masa, and herbs; $29). Both were delicious, but the Mole Amarillo was above and beyond. Although described in the menu as a “light mole”, it was flavorful, nuanced, and surprising. Having had our eyes opened to different moles by Houston’s Xochi last year, perhaps our jaded tastebuds are ready to move on from negro. Both dishes were served with rice and handmade heirloom corn tortillas; the Amarillo came with chayotes and French green beans. The tres leches surprisingly arrived in a hermes jar and was delicious and not overly sweet. After checking in and posting photos on Facebook, they followed up with an inquiry on what we liked the best; a nice touch.
All in all, this is a really good restaurant. Perhaps next time dinner needs to come with a side of room at the nearby Van Zandt.
salsa and butter
duck with Mole Negra
shrimp with Mole Amarillo
tres leches in a jar