We're all used to wood-fired ovens in pizzerias. New-American places? Sure. It's far less common to see the old-school contraptions in a Mexican restaurant.
But when Ninfa's on Navigation remade its kitchen in March, chef Alex Padilla requested it. A wood grill will be coming soon, too. But kitchen equipment is nothing without vision and Padilla, who trained under his James Beard-approved mentor Nancy Oakes in San Francisco before returning to Ninfa's (his mother's former place of employment), has that in spades. In fact, his new menu of five fire-kissed dishes leans more toward his fine dining background than the tacos al carbon that enter most diners' minds when they think of Ninfa's.
Take, for example, the queso asado. A round of panela cheese is roasted in the new oven to a crackly blister, but holds its toothsome texture, much like paneer or halloumi. Padilla serves it with chiles toreados in tomatillo salsa and a colorful habanero-spiked pile of pickled carrots, jicama, onion and pineapple. It's all meant to be scooped into warm corn tortillas and when it is, the combination is alchemical.
The ash-edged flatbread, topped with cochinita pibil, plantains and loads of veggies is too heavy on the raw onions for me, but with fewer alliums sunken into the Monterey Jack, it, too, could be a contender.
The huachinango borracho isn't soused until you make it so. The snapper itself is crisp-skinned and laden with garlic and lemon. It would be worth eating if Padilla stopped there. The drunkenness, though, comes from from creamy mushroom tequila sauce that is best spooned liberally over the fish for a result that is as much Italy or France as it is Mexico.
But the oven's greatest triumph is in the caramelized crunch of juicy pig flesh that is the long-brined double-cut pork chop. It's such a fine piece of meat, it doesn't really need the spicy-sweet jalapeño jelly that tops it, or the stone-ground grits that taste as much of cream as corn beneath it. The pair of red and green chile sauces? Also unnecessary, but as lovely as the rest. It's all more than enough to make anyone forget the tacos al carbon.