Malo is the latest venture from restauranteur George Formaro, offering New Latin American cuisine out of what was once the engine bay of a fire station at the corner of Ninth & Mulberry, now also home to the Des Moines Social Club and my espresso du jour, Capes Kafé.
On my first visit I ordered up a quartet of tacos: Al Pastor, Barbacoa, Chile Relleno, and Chorizo. These run the gamut from three to four bucks apiece, but are quite sizable. What I had wasn't terribly spicy, but that's what hot sauce is made for. Each has a very distinct taste, not brash bruisers, but delicate in flavor with a boatload of seared flesh. All four were garnished with white onion and cilantro.
The Chile Relleno taco [above right] offers a battered, fried bell pepper stuffed with queso Chihuahua, topped with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo. Its quite vegetal and an excellent vegetarian offering. Malo has since swapped out the bell pepper with a more traditional poblano chile.
The Al Pastor [above left] takes chile-marinated pork shoulder and tops it with pineapple and tomatillo salsa. The cubed pork has an appropriate springiness with wisps of crisp sear. The Barbacoa [above center] sporting braised beef with Jorge’s salsa was very beefy, with delightful strands of browning. Its easily the most filling taco on the plate. Malo’s Chorizo taco [above right] features housemade pork sausage with tomatillo salsa. The chorizo is quite juicy and well seasoned, almost herbaceous, but saltier than I cared for.
Malo’s tomatoey Salsa Roja is thick and bright with an underpinning of smokiness, but is not picante. The hearty, rich Guacamole is pretty straightforward: chopped and mashed avocado with chopped onion and lime juice; but shredded cheddar cheese is a distracting, unwelcome topping, muddling the flavor. I would much rather have it as a optional add-on like the bacon or crab Malo offers.
The Tijuana Trainwreck is a re-imaging of the traditional Mexican dish of chilaquiles – corn tortillas cut in quarters or strips, lightly fried, and combined with salsa and often eggs – as a casserole of chorizo, tortillas, Salsa Roja, tomatoes, and onion, topped with sliced avocado, cilantro creme, and a fried egg.
The housemade chorizo is a bonus in this application and adds great flavor, and the fried egg atop is visually pleasing, but the casserole is quite weighty and rather mushy as I dug down into it. I much prefer a more common preparation of having the fried tortilla strips combined with scrambled egg, then tossed with salsa. My personal gold standard for chilaquiles served this way can be had at the Ceres Cafe in Chicago - its an extraordinary mélange [see blog post].
Stacked Enchiladas present corn tortillas layered with queso fresco (since replaced with queso Chihuahua), corn salsa, black beans, sour cream, topped with a fried egg, and served with sides of sour cream, tomato, lettuce, and guacamole. Its a well built dish, but there was an underpinning sweetness I wasn’t fond of.
Despite the innovations that New Latin American cuisine offers – Chef Sam Auen of Tacopocalypse single-handedly introduced Central Iowans to the pleasures of cabbage slaw as a taco topper over the ubiquitous mound of shredded yellow cheese – I’ve find myself preferring the much simpler, more traditional fare that can be had at places like Los Laureles [see blog post] or one of Tacos Villanueva's taco movils (trucks).
Malo is undoubtedly developing a fan base much like Tacopocalypse, drawn by the inventive cuisine, and as much if not more by the personalities that helm each venture. I feel no immediate desire to revisit Malo in the near future. I’ve got places east of the Capitol like Los Laureles, Tacos Villanueva, Pupuseria La Cuscatleca, and Tacqueria Jalisco to sway my palate. Vaya con Dios, Malo.