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Lunch, Anyone? El Centro

A new standout in Boston’s Mexican scene

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Time was when it wasn’t easy to find Mexican cuisine in Boston. But today, the Charles River Campus has a number of chain restaurants, including Chipotle, Olecito, and Qdoba. And then there are the nearby gems that have captured the hearts (and stomachs) of many, like Anna’s Taqueria and Dorado. The city is experiencing something of an explosion in Mexican food now, with nearly a dozen Mexican restaurants claiming space in just the past two years. One of the best is El Centro, a hip and cozy spot in the South End’s beautiful historic district, not far from the Medical Campus. Featuring a menu that draws heavily on the cuisine of the Sonoran region of Mexico, this restaurant more than holds its own among the recent additions to south-of-the-border dining.

A word of warning: El Centro is pricey for a college or MED student on a budget. Those late-night 99-cent Taco Bell meals you grab when your wallet’s limp and your mouth’s watering? You won’t find those here. A single taco at El Centro costs $5. But what you get for your money is authentic Mexican cuisine.

El Centro mexican restaurant, Boston South End, where to eat in Boston, Boston mexican food restaurants

Everything in the restaurant, down to the aluminum menus, adds to the cultural flair.

Chef and co-owner Allan Rodriguez opened El Centro in May 2011 with Robi Islam, on the site of Islam’s former restaurant Siraj Café. Nothing special from the sidewalk, but step inside and you find yourself surrounded by vibrant Mexican street art, including a hand-painted mural along the back wall and portraits of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and film idol and singer Pedro Infante, famous from the 1930s until his death in 1957. The brick and yellow walls, low lantern lighting, and ornately tiled ceiling add to the eclectic vibe. There’s an urban New York City feel to El Centro—accentuated the day we were there by the four young women sitting near us sipping margaritas and looking remarkably like the cast of Sex & the City.

The tiny restaurant was nearly full when we arrived, but a table for two had just opened, so we were seated immediately. We started with the guacamole appetizer ($7), which arrived in what seemed like seconds, surprising since there were only two servers manning the floor. The creamy guacamole, mixed with a splash of salsa and topped with grated cheese and a couple of red onion slivers, was somewhat bland. We ordered another appetizer as well, the carne asado taco ($5), filled with perfectly cooked charcoal-grilled steak.

Shrimp ceviche and guacamole at El Centro mexican restaurant, Boston South End

Shrimp ceviche (left) and guacamole appetizer.

After scanning the lengthy menu—which includes items for vegetarians and those craving breakfast—we ordered our main entrees: shrimp ceviche ($11) and a chimichanga with chicken ($15). Again, the service was amazing. Our friendly waitress brought both dishes to the table within five minutes of ordering. The chilled ceviche, with shrimp swimming in a mild citrus juice, chopped tomatoes, onions, and avocados, was a delicious dish for a hot summer afternoon. The fresh and plentiful shrimp came with a side of scrumptious chips to scoop it all up with. To accompany the ceviche, we ordered a Tecate—a subtle amber beer that didn’t leave a strong aftertaste, keeping our palates intact while we tasted the food. (Note: there’s a small bar that seats six if you’re looking to simply grab a beer with friends.)

Chicken chimichanga and red sangria at El Centro mexican restaurant, Boston South End

Chicken chimichanga with a glass of red sangria.

Stuffed with shredded chicken, pan-fried, and served in a salsa Narciso Romero, the generously sized chimichanga was packed with flavor. We paused before ordering the dish, described in the menu as “immersed” in salsa, fearing it might be drenched and soggy. Happily, that wasn’t the case, and the salsa added just the right zest. We ordered a glass of red sangria ($7) with it. It was perfect, not overly sweet and with plenty of depth.

We had hoped to top our lunch off with an order of churros ($7), the fried dough pastry served with either caramel or chocolate sauce. Alas, the restaurant had just run out, a major letdown for two people with a major sweet tooth.

That disappointment aside, we were very pleased with our meal. It’s easy to see why El Centro won best Mexican restaurant in Boston magazine’s Best of Boston 2012 issue.

If you’re willing to spend a little extra, a trip to this energetic, hidden South End spot is a must.

El Centro, 472 Shawmut Ave., Boston, is open for brunch and lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and for dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. daily. The restaurant takes all major credit cards and accepts reservations. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Hynes Convention Center, then the #1 bus to Massachusetts Avenue at Shawmut Avenue. It’s about a three-minute walk to the restaurant.

This is part of a weekly series featuring Boston lunch spots of interest to the BU community. If you have any suggestions for places we should feature, leave them in the comments section below. Check out our list of lunchtime tips on Foursquare.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu; follow him on Twitter at @tomgvellner.

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