Ovalle's Mexican Café is the "vision of contemporary Mexican food," says Erwin Ovalle, who co-owns the restaurant with Ally Rivera. The restaurant's interior is also rather contemporary, painted olive green and clay red with accents of mahogany across the large archways that lead from one dining area to another.
I took it all in as gauzy window curtains softened the afternoon light while wall-mounted candles flickered. The room smelled faintly of women's perfume. From somewhere in the back I could hear water running and pots clanking.
Ovalle's menu is unlike the standard menu you might see in many other Mexican restaurants. It is refreshingly simple and headed by four main categories: antojitos, tortas, tacos and platos. Or, appetizers, sandwiches, tacos and entrees.
"We are not Tex-Mex," said Ally. "We are traditional Mexican and Guatemalan food." Popular menu items include the signature Guacamole en Molcajete, which is prepared tableside to-order. The Ahogada, a Mexican sandwich, is also a customer favorite. It is made with juicy chicken carnitas, black beans, Oaxaca cheese and pickled red onion sandwiched between a crisp toasted bun and served on a platter of spicy-smelling chile de Arbol and tomato broth.
The Guatemalan-style Churrasco is also a best-seller, featuring a succulent natural Black Angus New York steak, black beans, guacamole and, my personal favorite, sweet plantains drizzled with homemade Mexican cream and sprinkled with cheese.
Ovalle's daily lunch specials are also quite popular and include taco platters, grilled quesadillas and the pollo a la crema made with grilled chicken, roasted poblano pepper and smashed potato served with Spanish cheese.
"Everything is made from scratch," Erwin told me.
That includes Ovalle's signature aguas frescas, or traditional flavored water drinks in flavors like passion fruit or horchata, which is made from ground rice and blended spices. I hadn't ever heard of rice water and had to try it.
"The most intimate way you can experience a culture is through its flavors," Erwin said. In which case Mexico, I decided as I sipped my cool glass of horchata, was sweet, refreshing and tinged with the taste of cinnamon.
LOCATION: 3210 Broad St.
HOURS: Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
This past August, Ovalle's Mexican Café marked its one-year anniversary. Erwin and Ally have big plans as the restaurant enters its second year. "Our goal at Ovalle's is to be even better," Erwin told me. "We want our employees to be very proud of where they work. We want to represent the best of what Mexican cuisine can offer." ?