Native Guatemalan Erwin Ovalle opened Ovalle’s Mexican Café a few months ago in St. Elmo, fulfilling a dream of opening his own traditional Mexican bakery and café. After spending time in Mexico during college, he fell in love with its rich street food scene and decided to bring those flavors to Chattanooga. Last Thursday, I had an itch for some Mexican food, so I wanted to see what Ovalle’s had to offer.
3210 Broad St.
Chattanooga, TN 37408
11 a.m.-2 p.m.
11 a.m.-10 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Atmosphere and service
As I roamed into the restaurant, I was surrounded by bright, warm colors, further brightened by a smiling face greeting us. Ovalle was working the front and seated us in a large, open room with a small fireplace in the back. The tables were spaced far apart from each other, so it wouldn’t feel crammed no matter how busy they were.
My server was new and still learning, which was understandable. That didn’t matter because he was friendly and attentive-and made a mean guacamole. Any question he couldn’t answer, he went to find out rather than guessing, and he put forth a lot of effort into making our experience enjoyable. The food arrived in a timely fashion, just as we finished the previous courses.
The menu is small, and I dig that. This is a specialized place, not your typical Americanized Mexican restaurant with 100 different items made with the same ingredients. Because the restaurant is new, they are still working out their menu and have several selections available that are presently unlisted.
It had been a while since I had encountered my buddy cilantro-with just a few cameo appearances here and there throughout the more recent reviews-but it was, by far, the star of this show and was all over the menu.
Cilantro made its first grand appearance in the free salsa served with the meal, which was of the thinner variety. The cilantro was in a nice balance with the tomato, onion and pepper blend, and the housemade tortilla chips were fresh and lightly salted.
The first main highlight was the “guacamole en molcajete” ($7.99), which the server prepared fresh at the table using a mortar and pestle. This was a fun intro to the meal: watching the server peel and slice avocados and limes, then grind the mixture along with tomatoes and peppers in the mortar. We were able to specify the amount of jalapeño heat we wanted as it was made: We wanted heat, and heat was brought. This was a good, fresh guacamole that was also topped with cilantro, of course.
I also sampled the sopes ($5): three little tortilla bowls packed with chorizo sausage, Chihuahua cheese, black beans, green onions, tomatoes and spiced sour cream in a rich tomato broth, all topped with cilantro. These little tortilla pockets packed big flavor, further intensified by sopping up the tangy broth with them, and were a good preview of the strong flavors to come.
The first main dish I sampled was the $10.50 mole (pronounced “mole-lay”), which had pan-seared chicken breast in a prune and sesame seed mole sauce. This sauce was lightly sweet with slight undertones of chocolate, and the chicken breast was infiltrated with the mole’s rich flavors seeping throughout its moist interior. The cilantro rice to the side had a balanced, slight cilantro tinge, and the summer veggie side had nicely cooked morsels of zucchini and squash with a slight char.
Next, I sampled the carne asada grilled steak ($13). This chile-rubbed skirt steak was juicy on its own, but the cilantro garlic sauce added more moisture to the party, helping to quench some chile heat from the dry rub. The tamale to the side was a moistly cooked sweet maize mixture, topped with gobs of spiced sour cream and shredded cheese. The grilled green onion was a nice complement to both the steak and the tamale, adding a little extra bite.
Although the plated dishes were very good, Ovalle’s bread and butter is the wide selection of tortas, which are traditional Mexican sandwiches housed in bolillo bread. Ovalle bakes these oval-shaped, baguette-like loaves in a wood-burning oven.
This bread was fantastic. With its heavenly soft interior and lightly crunchy outer crust, this fresh bread would be good on its own. However, the wide selection of ingredients used in the different torta types rivals many of our best sandwich shops-not only in quality, but also in originality.
After scanning the menu, I was surprised to see there wasn’t a vegetarian-type torta listed, so I asked the server. Sure enough, a veggie torta ($8.50) was available, and my server said it was wildly popular even though it hadn’t officially been added to the menu. I have to admit I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a shot.
I was glad I did. This torta was loaded with marinated, grilled mushrooms, zucchini, onions and carrots with a bean spread and was smothered in gooey, melted cheese. The soft interior of the bolillo held up well to the veggies’ onslaught of juices and creamy, molten cheese without becoming soggy. I enjoyed everything I tried, but this sandwich was actually my favorite dish, and I’m not even a vegetarian-it would be wise for them to add this to the updated menu.
I also sampled the Milanese torta ($8.50), which had pan-fried chicken breast topped with Oaxaca cheese, arugula, picked red onions, jalapeños and a cilantro lime vinaigrette. The crispy, golden breading on the chicken was well-seasoned, with the fresh arugula adding a light, peppery component further intensified by the jalapeños, pickled onions and cilantro. Each bite was a fiesta of flavors intermingling in a lively fusion.
Both of these tortas were served with fries. These fries weren’t greasy and were lightly salted, but otherwise unspectacular-fries aren’t Mexican, anyway, but do go well with good sandwiches. The ketchup had a slight kick and tasted freshly made.
I can’t overstate how incredible the pomegranate ice cream was. This was the best scoop of ice cream I’ve had in Chattanooga, no question about it. Ovalle imports fresh pomegranates and uses them to make this all-natural, signature ice cream from scratch with a fresh arils sprinkled on top. Its powerful pomegranate punch was slightly softened by the velvety frozen cream in a flavor rush that hit like a sweetly tart vortex, causing me to close my eyes in a brief trance-like state of frosty euphoria. Yeah, it was that good.
The guayaba ice cream was also refreshing, with a flavor more akin to a pear crossed with a strawberry. The silky nature of this fresh ice cream itself was just as dreamy as the other ice cream, but it was just overshadowed in comparison to the titanic flavor of its neighboring scoop. Did I mention I liked the pomegranate ice cream?
I also sampled the almond cake ($5). The almond-infused cake itself had an extremely moist, milky texture. It was frosted with a sweetened cream cheese and topped with a heavy blanket of chopped almonds and a cherry. This was a high-quality cake of superior moistness, and I highly recommend it. But, trust me, if you’re only picking one dessert, do not pass up the pomegranate ice cream. You will thank me later.
I am giving Ovalle’s Mexican Café 3 stars. If you are looking for a typical Americanized Mexican meal, look elsewhere. Chattanooga has a plethora of those kinds of places-you will find no burritos here. But if you are looking for something different, something traditional and real, with made-from-scratch dishes prepared the right way with fresh ingredients, this is a hidden gem in St. Elmo that would be happy to oblige.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.