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Xalos Mexican Grill livens up the standards with a creative approach

Riza Brown

The Glenn Square Shopping Center is often just a blur of empty pavement on the average person's commute. It's not a highly trafficked area; I only find myself there when I have a 20-percent-off coupon at Bed, Bath & Beyond or have a craving for a strawberry lemonade cupcake from Eva's Cupcakery. But that may change with the introduction of Xalos Mexican Grill, touted as "the creative tastes of Mexico!" For me, the pull of a well-crafted burrito is pretty strong.

Xalos works hard to differentiate itself from other local Mexican restaurants with a less-processed approach to preparation and an almost deviant menu. Gone are the 40 combination plate choices and instead of feeling deprived ("But I always get the chile relleno with cheese enchilada, add rice and beans!"), I was intrigued. Could this be a better way? Of course, there are burritos ($9.25-$16.95) and tacos ($4.25-$6.25), definitely the highlight of popular Mexican fare, but there are only four iterations of each. No chimichangas, no flautas and no taquitos.

In fact, half the menu features seafood, and romantic-sounding seafood at that. Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (shrimp and onions in a garlic wine sauce, $18.95) and the Cocktail Vuelve a la Vida (various seafood with house made cocktail sauce, $18.95) had me reading the menu out loud for the sheer pleasure of hearing the seductive syllables. Ceviche is well-represented, which is as it should be in a city with insanely fresh seafood.

For my first visit, I dropped in after work to grab a quick bite. The location is ideal for this, as it's close to the highway and there is an unbelievable amount of parking. The space is brand-spanking new and filled with light, jaunty with oversized Mexican-inspired paintings on the wall and bold colors. I ordered the chipotle burrito ($11.75, $10.75 at lunchtime) with steak and took stock of the salsa bar while I waited. Nine different salsas, sour cream and pickled vegetables beckoned, and with a furtive glance at the few customers, I proceeded to fill little plastic containers with every salsa in the bar. For science.

I got my burrito and high-tailed it out of there, containers shoved willy-nilly into a paper bag. Fortunately, I'd made a mental note of the colors and type, so when I got home and dove into my bounty, I knew right away that the roasted tomato salsa was a winner. The others were good, too, but the bright heat of this particular salsa underscored the grill-smoke of the succulent meat and made the ubiquitous rice and beans get up and do a little, well, salsa. The burrito was excellent, every element fresh and well-seasoned.

A friend accompanied me on my next visit and we were fully prepared to do more damage to the salsa bar. We ordered the chile relleno and enchilada verde combination ($12.95), two carne asada street tacos ($8.50), the Xalos tostada ($7.25) and two Pacificos, on tap. When the food came out, we found it didn't even need the plethora of sauces we had arrayed in front of us like so many whiskey shots. The dishes were plenty vibrant on their own. Simple steak tacos were made lush with tenderly treated meat and the simple (but necessary) garnish of chopped onion, cilantro and fresh lime juice. The freshness was repeated in the Xalos tostada, a shrimp, octopus and crab meat ceviche on a corn tostada, gussied up with nothing more than a few perfect avocado slices.

I was especially glad that my "usual" was most definitely not; this chile relleno little resembled the funky-fried, sauce-drenched limp zeppelin of comidas past. The staff informed me that unlike in other restaurants, these chiles are not pulled from a jar. The whole plate, with its lightly nuanced rice, authentic (for once!) enchilada and relleno revelation had me thinking that Xalos is indeed creative, but more importantly, it's delicious.


Daily News correspondent