Eric Williams doesn't like spicy food. That's hard to believe coming from the man known for serving chilaquiles and huevos rancheros, but that culinary preference is part of what led him to develop his own approach to Mexican cuisine.
"I'm much more interested in layering flavors than in the heat level," says the chef and restaurateur. "I go for balance and complexity."
Williams' fascination with Caribbean and Latin food began with the cookbooks his father bought him after he dropped out of college at 19. Determined to become a chef, Williams started out with stints at Moxie alongside chefs Douglas Katz and Jonathan Bennett and at Pete and Dewey's downtown.
But it was during the nine years he spent working at Johnny Mango World Cafe and Lopez Southwest Kitchen (now Lopez on Lee) that he came up with a plan for his own restaurant and the style of cooking he dubbed Mod Mex.
When Momocho opened in Ohio City in 2006, Williams admits it took a while to build an audience.
His approach is about creativity, not authenticity. Dishes may begin with refried beans, chorizo and other ingredients familiar to fans of quesadillas and nachos, but what comes to the table likely won't resemble Mexican fare found elsewhere.
"Nobody in Cleveland was doing anything like it. This wasn't the Americanized version of Mexican cooking people expected," he says. "It was a fight to convince them to try something new and different."
Nothing more clearly expresses the essence of that style than what he does with guacamole, reinventing the simple, traditional preparation by adding goat cheese, smoked trout or bacon.
Today, the 43-year-old chef has a loyal following. It's tough to get a table at Momocho on a Saturday night without reservations. But since July, those with a taste for his distinctive take on Mexican food can find an alternative in El Carnicero — the Spanish name for "the butcher" and moniker of a retired champion Mexican wrestler. The restaurant does its own in-house butchering and Williams has decorated the former McCarthy's Ale House with the colorful masks worn by luchadores (Spanish for Mexican wrestlers) along with posters and other artifacts of the sport.
While the menu isn't identical to Momocho's, the spirit is. Crossover dishes include variations on guacamole, slow-cooked duck leg confit and adobo braised boar. And he's still challenging diners to push their boundaries by occasionally offering more unusual options such as stewed rabbit or menudo — a reputed hangover cure made with beef tongue — for Sunday brunch.
The focus at El Carnicero is on tamales and taquitos, plus bocaditos (starters) and antojitos (sides). Within that framework, diners have a chance to travel far into his adobo and poblano spiked, salsa-centric universe.
"The new place is an extension of who we are [at Momocho], and the culinary and cultural traditions I love," says Williams. "It's like what Michael [Symon] has done with Lola and Lolita. Each restaurant is different, but the food at both has that Symon touch and people know what to expect when they eat there. El Carnicero is my Lolita."
Since Williams is also the chef and co-owner of Happy Dog in the Gordon Square Arts District (with plans to open a second East Side location), and Jack Flaps, an all-day breakfast spot on West 25th Street, you won't always find him in the back stirring the pots of tinga (16-spiced chicken) and machaca (coffee and ancho braised beef brisket). He leaves that to Adam Legler and Alex Arsham, the chefs in charge of El Carnicero's kitchen that he's trained and continues to mentor in his Mod Mex style.
That concept includes 10 options for tamales, two of them vegetarian, and 12 versions of roll-your-own taquitos with various proteins available in either category. The picadillo ($13.50 tamale or taquito) — a delicious combination of ground lamb, mint and toasted walnuts — rang all our bells. And we liked the al pastor ($14.50 tamale, $14 taquito) — featuring shredded-citrus -and-adobo-braised pork — as much the next day as we did on first bite.
Portions are nice-sized (leftovers are to be expected), but the real reason we were too full to finish lies with baskets of fresh house-made chips and tasty dips to dunk them in, especially sikil pak ($2.50), an earthy Mayan-inspired sauce of toasted pumpkin seeds and chile Manzano. The sweet and slightly stinging salsa chiltomate ($2.50), a combination of charred tomatoes and guajillo chiles, was another table pleaser.
Corn is central to Mexican cooking and, holy mother of maize, the kitchen does good things with it here. Besides being the main ingredient for the chips, tortillas and the dense steamed masa that serves as the base of the tamales, you'll find chunks of it cut off the cob in the escabeche ($2), a wonderful mix of pickled carrots, cauliflower, celery and green beans.
A helpful server steered us to esquites ($4), a spicy creamed corn we'd never had before, and we're glad he did. A fresh salad of jicama and watercress ($3.50) brought a welcome bit of cool to our overheated palates. We also followed his suggestion to try the crispy chicharrones ($3.50). The fried pork rinds are paired with big kernels of hominy and steamed spinach tossed in pineapple vinegar. It's a surprisingly fine matchup.
Everything is made from scratch and cooked to order. But prices are reasonable, $10.50 to $15.50 for entrees, in keeping with the casual atmosphere, which extends to paper boats for the papas fritas ($3), thin-cut potato fries drizzled with chimichurri, a sprightly garlic and parsley sauce, and a sprinkle of crumbly white cheese.
A 34-stool oval bar dominates the sprawling 4,800-square-foot, three-section space, connecting the two main rooms. One side is outfitted with small high-tops and the other features long tables perfect for big groups that contribute to a lively party vibe when the place is busy. A third area, which can be booked for private gatherings, becomes the Super Chango tequileria on Friday and Saturday nights.
As he did at Momocho, Williams aims to provide an experience here that is not what you get in a place decorated with sombreros and blow-up bottles of Corona — he's discovered there's more than one way to spice up Cleveland's dining scene.