With the restaurants on Federal Hill packed bruschetta to osso buco, competing in slow-mo culinary combat, it’s good to see one old favorite survive and even thrive. While all those Italian restaurants on Atwells Avenue go on dueling with breadsticks, Don José Tequilas calmly sits back sipping a nice aged reserva and greeting customers up for something different — some good Mexican food.
The restaurant has been in this location for eight years, expanded from a tiny place over on Plainfield Street, gaining fans that would go along. In love with their off-menu shrimp ceviche — which is now on the menu ($12.95) — I would have followed them to Woonsocket.
Don Jose Tequilas | 401.454.8951 | 351 Atwells Ave, Providence | Mon-Thurs + Sun, 3-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 3-11 pm; Sun, 3-10 | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level accessible
Fresh ingredients, traditional recipes with interesting touches (a sprinkling of oregano in the guacamole), just those sorts of open secrets, that’s their secret. You won’t find cheddar on their chile rellenos.
Chef Rachael Diaz has been preparing her seafood here, especially shrimp, with recipes from her native Yucatán for many years. She is now accompanied by Maria Hernandez, from Vera Cruz. Owners Jaime and Jose Garcia are from Morelia, in the state of Michoacan, between Mexico City and Guadalajara.
We could have started with either black bean or red broth soup with guajilla chiles ($4.95/$7.95). The simple house salad ($6.50), or one sparked up with mango and raspberry vinai-grette ($7.95), can be turned into a dinner by adding beef, chicken, or shrimp. As with most ethnic restaurants, some usual suspects are here due to the pressure of popular demand (I once heard a guy ask for French fries at a Chinese restaurant), so you can get “nachos machos” ($6.95/$11.95).
We were familiar with their piquant ceviche, but chose to start with a small Don Jose’s Platter ($8.95/$13.95), to sample a few things. The chicken and cheese quesadilla was es-pecially tasty, the shredded meat probably marinated; the pico de gallo, over shredded lettuce, had a stingy dollop of their buttery guacamole, making me want more. There were two cubes of mild, crumbly añejo cheese and two slices of brazo de reina, an oversized tamale, filled with spinach and eggs, and ground pumpkin seeds, which is available sepa-rately.
For a main course, the seafood choices were odd, yet intriguing. Five of the eight were Gulf shrimp dishes, and two of the other three (the exception was broiled tilapia) contained camarones with other seafood. Among their dozen carne entrées — goat shanks, beef steaks, pulled pork cooked in plantain leaves, under achiote sauce — I am psychologically and physically compelled to order their molcajete Azteca ($22.95/$36.95), no matter how many times I have it.
Served in a hot, stone mortar are grill-marked strips of sirloin and chicken breast, both well-marinated, as well as shrimp, grilled cactus, Mexican chorizo, and El Viajero cheese, all in a savory, slightly hot sauce, with chipotle sauce on the side.
With the corn tortillas we were brought, I made little fajita wraps and dunked to my heart’s content. There was also a side of refried beans and rice, in case my stomach was su-pernaturally large. I don’t know if this dish is to die for, but I’d consider being a little maimed.