Venue Review: Dos Perros
Charlie Deal blew into town from California in 2005, bringing with him a passion for that state's diverse ethnic food scene that the Triangle quickly found to be as refreshing as a Pacific breeze. The talented young chef wasted no time in sharing that passion in the form of Jujube, whose exuberant take on Asian street food is as fresh today as it was when he opened the restaurant four years ago.
Deal turned his attention to Mexico in August, when he opened Dos Perros in downtown Durham. Like Jujube, the new restaurant serves up a bracing blend of inventiveness and respect for tradition, a breath of fresh air in a region dominated by cookie-cutter Tex-Mex joints.
But don't let the emphasis on scratch cooking and the casual-chic decor fool you. Dos Perros is not a highfalutin place. The complimentary basket of warm flour tortilla chips and roasted chile salsa you're served on being seated is a familiar nod to humble Mexican restaurant tradition. You'd be well advised to supplement that welcoming basket with an order of Dos Perros' excellent chunky guacamole.
Empanadas de pollo, crisp golden half moons of masa dough filled with savory shreds of braised chicken, make a fine starter. So does sopa de camote, a thick, velvety sweet potato soup whose flavor (it isn't as sweet as it sounds) is punctuated by a drizzle of spiced cream. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a more soul-satisfying tamal in these parts than the tamal Oaxaqueño, a banana leaf-wrapped baton of masa dough molded around a generous filling of chicken simmered in mole negro.
The mole is a subtle background note in the tamal. To appreciate the rich complexity of this labor-intensive sauce of chiles, spices and Mexican chocolate in all its glory, order the mole poblano entree.
If chicken is the canvas for the bold strokes of sauce in the mole poblano, it's the undisputed focal point of the composition in pollo rostizado, which serves up a whole chile-cured roasted hen against a colorful backdrop of roasted potatoes and ribbons of sautéed green poblano.
In another entree offering, a moist filet of pan-roasted grouper owes its bronze luster and pleasantly musty, faintly peppery notes to the achiote in a Mayan spice rub. The same spice blend produces an altogether different effect in cochinita pibil, where its perfume is interwoven with the vegetal sweetness of a banana leaf wrapper permeating the succulent flesh of slow-roasted pork.
Indeed, the menu leaves little of the Mexican flavor spectrum unexplored. In trucha relleno, it's the vibrant red of a tropically fragrant sauce of guajillo chiles and orange that blankets a North Carolina trout stuffed with crab and shrimp. In mole amarillo con chochoyones, it's the tang of tomatillos in a stew of vegetables and masa dumplings. In cabrito con verdolagas, it's the pungent counterpoint of purslane against exquisitely juicy shreds of braised local goat.
Disappointments are few, especially in light of the ambitiously varied offering. Platanos rellenos have gotten rave reviews, but a surprisingly skimpy filling of jalapeño and cheese left them tasting one-dimensionally sweet when I tried them. That same night, the tortilla chips were greasy and a jalapeño-lime sorbet was grainy. I'm inclined to chalk those miscues up to an off night, given the near flawless execution I experienced on a subsequent evening.
Dos Perros is in the old Rogers Drug Store building, a charming historic structure with a molded tin ceiling and other period details that Deal has preserved while giving the space a decidedly contemporary feel (much like his cooking, come to think of it). A long butcher block bar dispenses first-rate margaritas and inventive cocktails such as La Leche, a deceptively easy-to-drink elixir of house-made horchata and dark rum.
There's also a modest but well-chosen selection of craft beers and wines.
It's anybody's guess as to which direction the weathervane of Charlie Deal's culinary zeal will point next. But it's a good bet that the forecast will be sunny.