Verde is the growing edge of Mexican dining, in Huntersville

07/24/2014 1:47 PM

07/25/2014 1:00 AM

Midscale Mexican is nearly nonexistent in these parts, as is regional Mexican that embraces notes of Central and South American cooking. So Verde wins a point for rarity-of-menu before you even get in the door.

Then, this sibling to the upscale Prickly Pear and the downscale Burrito Loco, both in Mooresville, uses chiles with zest, even managing to employ them in specialty margaritas that aren’t cloying. Chile de arbol and avocado, for example, with a tangy salt rim, or chipotle tamarind. Another point.

But of course it’s the meat of the menu that matters. And in that? Several more points, for:

• Thick little bars of calamari, cornmeal-fried and accompanied by a suitably smoky chipotle rouille.
• A lovely length of skirt steak, grilled and rolled up, laid next to a small chicken enmolada – that’s an enchilada done with mole.
• A seafood stew made with a luxurious coconut-creamy and guajillo (that’s a chile) base: Its flavors were perfection, and calamari and white fish did well, but tiny shrimp and scallops and huge mussels had turned tough by the time the stew came to the table.

A tableside guacamole was as awkward as they often are – well, no: More so, since this young earnest man had a tip jar on his cart. (Please, all casual places offering tableside preps: Make the tableside maneuvering one option, not the option.) Yet the guacamole itself was charming, and interesting, with a varied pepper blend and olive oil additions.

Also entertaining: Oaxacan “string cheese” served flaming, with a little mound of chorizo and mushrooms, and good flour tortillas for scooping it up. “Don’t catch yourself on fire,” our earnest server said as he sat it down. (I’m guessing the specialty margaritas may occasionally be over-consumed.)

Ancho-barbecued brisket comes in enchiladas (with a cilantro-poblano cream sauce); classic carnitas (braised pork) arrive in tacos with cilantro and tomatillo and avocado salsas (two for $6!); and there’s both slow-cooked pibil (a Yucatan pork dish, with pickled red onions), and pork shank (with cilantro gremolata, playing with the Italian osso buco’s parsley version), plus borracho: baked (“drunk”) chicken with a sauce of roasted tomato, habanero and pumpkin seed.

Lean away from fajitas: They’re both the least interesting and the least well executed of what we had. Even sides are a pleasant surprise: Perfect maduros (ripe plantain slices), beautifully smoky-sweet-soupy beans, sharp pico de gallo.

Verde anchors a corner in a mall in Huntersville and has a bright decor that’s not dressy, but also isn’t fast-casual. Servers range from the oh-so-earnest to quite-the-slick, and help each other out in keeping pace. The kitchen can be slow, and you can watch progress through its open front; you can also watch the care taken in plating and garnishing.

Desserts go beyond the typical, too, from a cajeta creme brulee to capirotada, a sort of Mexican bread pudding.

Verde’s owners – Valentino Panizzut and Eddie Chavez (who also own Prickly Pear and Burrito Loco), along with Javier Gutierrez and Alex Soto – are broadening the scope of Mexican dining here, as the long-appreciated Prickly Pear did for finer dining.

Point well taken.

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