Kevin Settles' latest venture doesn't use global fusion concepts, like at his popular Bardenay restaurants.
Calle Verde, on the Basque Block in the former Saffron/Pie/Ten spot, is an upscale taqueria that lets tacos (not the trailer park variety), chiles rellenos, carnitas and tamales take center stage.
It's obvious that Bardenay executive chef Ted Martinez draws influences from his upbringing for this menu. The fare is traditional (no orange cheese here) with a Tex-Mex twist.
Tangerine, lime and sky blue paint livens the walls. Exposed red bricks accentuate framed Mexican folk art. The restaurant, like all the places before it, has a warehouse feel, with visible heating vents and large wood beams.
The comfy bar area offers spacious booths and plenty of stools, making it a great place to quaff margaritas on the rocks (the house preference), mojitos and tall bottles of cervesa.
One night, we started with chiles rellenos ($5.99), ceviche tostadas ($7.95) and bottles of Pacifico beer ($4).
We nibbled on gratis tortilla chips and salsa while waiting for our starters to arrive. The chips were fresh and crispy, but the salsa had a strange, brown hue and tasted like roasted peppers and salt. That's it. No balance.
The delicious chiles rellenos made us forget all about the salsa. Two egg and flour-dredged, queso fresco-stuffed poblano peppers were treated to a sizzling pan, and then finished with peppery ranchero sauce and crumbled cotija cheese.
The red snapper in the ceviche, served in crunchy tostada cups, didn't taste so fresh, though. The lime marinade, diced chili peppers, green olives, avocado and fresh cilantro couldn't mask its extreme fishiness.
But we appreciated the pork tamales ($8.50). In the husks came two cylindrical white masa rolls packed with seasoned pork shreds and red chili peppers, served with zesty tomatillo sauce. Smoky charro beans (whole pintos), pico de gallo and fluffy cilantro-lime rice were the chosen sides.
The tacos Sinaloa ($8.95) were excellent, albeit a little messy to eat. Envision three corn tortillas topped with tender beef shreds and pepper-spiked mashed potatoes, folded like half moons, fried until crispy, and smothered with red chile gravy.
After this bombardment of plates, we had no room left for creamy Mexican custard.
On a lunch visit the following week, we immediately noticed the salsa had the same brownish color and lack of balance.
We opted for a side of guacamole ($4.95), to help empty the chip basket. A large mound of lime-kicked, smashed avocado — pocked with tomato, red onion, serrano pepper and cilantro — was positioned on slices of cucumber, radish and jicama. It was a fresh plate with bright flavors and crisp textures, unlike the standard guacamole found at most places around town.
The carnitas tacos ($7.95) were good in a traditional sense. Three warm corn tortillas came topped with toothsome pieces of carnitas (slow-cooked pork butt), shredded lettuce, chopped onion, cilantro leaves and crumbled cotija. The tasty refritos and Mexi-rice were hardly an afterthought.
I liked that the enchiladas suiza ($8.95) weren't swimming in sauce and melted orange cheese. Three yellow corn tortilla tubes were stuffed with spicy chicken and scallion, and then lightly splashed with roasted tomatillo sauce and sprinkled with cotija. Charro beans and cilantro-lime rice made this plate a meal.
Calle Verde, like all new restaurants, has its share of shortcomings; the kitchen just needs to fine-tune some of its offerings. But the place is headed in the right direction.
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shown is a plate of tacos sinaloa, or corn tortillas with shredded beef, at Calle Verde.