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Though not always authentic, José's still fun

JOSE'S MEXICAN FOOD

131 Sherman St., Porter Square.

By Aaron R. Prazan

Boston, or New England, is usually not the place to find great Mexican food. Not only is it rare; it is often unappreciated by the population. Face it: More people know good chowder from mediocrity than know good tamales from spicy corndogs. Located at 131 Sherman Street near Porter Square, José's Mexican Food makes an honest attempt at giving us the real thing. Being the only son of a Mexican mother, I grew up on fantastic Mexican food. I'm not going to say José's took me back to the years in San Diego I spent eating homecooked Menudo and acquiring a taste for dishes above the melting point of the fork they sat on. I will say that unlike the chains and "Southwest style" eateries around, José's does capture the character of real Mexican food. That alone is quite a feat for a New England restaurant.

First, the place really looks Mexican. There is no track lighting, no tacky, fake stucco with even cheesier patches of "time-worn" bricks, and no larger-than-life plastic Corona bottles. It is simple, and the low concentration of cliché Mexican decoration only makes it more authentic. Mexican music in the background brings the place closer still to the real thing. José's looks like it could be a real Mexican restaurant, not a Chili's at the mall.

Of course, the true test of quality is in the food, which was sometimes not spectacular. But in Boston, a Mexican food fan must take the good with the bad. Good indicators were the chips and salsa. This was not made in San Antonio by people who know what Picante sauce should taste like, but obviously made right on the premises. The salsa appears to be often homemade; the pico de gallo could have been hotter, but not fresher.

Nachos are also well done at José's. They are hot and do not skimp on meat, beans, or fresh vegetables. Also as an appetizer, I tried a Mexican pizza. The menu said shredded beef, but the shreds looked a lot like hamburger to me. Mexican pizza in general seems to be a Taco Bell creation, so I was not discouraged that it was not authentic enough.

On the whole, the food had a general hit-and-miss quality. I had the opportunity to taste chile rellenos, a chicken quesadilla, an enormous chimichanga, and José's version of enchiladas. The chile rellenos were the closest to my grandmother's cooking. Again, greasy hamburger replaced shredded beef. The chicken was great, though, a fact which led me to suspect they simply ran out of shredded beef that busy Saturday night. Another strong point were the beans, both pinto and black. They had good flavor and thick, chunky consistency.

Other entrées were not so successful. The enchiladas had plenty of meat, but no sauce. That was so unusual that I almost asked if I had the right plate. The rice-filled chimichanga was similarly undressed. A saving grace was the chicken quesadilla, which overflowed with hot cheese and tender chicken. Again, the dinner was not the strongest regional cuisine, but average by my standards.

On the other hand, dessert was definitely an unexpected strength. It is generally tough to find flan (a caramel covered custard) anywhere. José's has managed to find someone capable of making a very impressive one. The flan is a rather difficult dessert to make well, as it is very easy to curdle or over-cook. Flan at José's was without a doubt the softest, most delectable I have ever had anywhere. Sopapillas were also far above average, crisp and drizzled with just enough honey to make them sweet, but not sticky.

Overall, José's is a fun place. It is a good place to go with a group for a good time. For fine dining, go somewhere else, but at José's full bar and great finger foods foster conversation and raucous laughter. Go for talk, a good margarita, and something new for dessert. Don't expect to find scrumptious Mexican food, especially if you've had the best before. Boston definitely is much better at seafood.

From the Porter T stop, go north on Mass. Ave. Turn left by the KFC and follow that road to Sherman St. Turn right there; José's is a few blocks down on the right.