Alma Mexicana opens patio, serves local flavors
By: Jennifer Zeleski
When deciding to go to a restaurant, one must practice a sort of divine timing. If the restaurant is new, popular or flat-out good, the chances of you getting a table promptly are low, if at all. This has been the case ever since Alma Mexicana, located at the Innovation Quarter in Winston-Salem, opened just two months ago.
This weekend, my boyfriend insisted that it was time to try the new restaurant. The owners, Claire Calvin and Matt Giegengack, already have a strong following at The Porch Kitchen and Cantina — including us. But their new endeavor is begging to be different, despite the similar cuisine. We were lucky enough to get a table on Saturday during the odd hours when it is too late to call a meal lunch but too early to consider it dinner.
To my initial dismay, the timing made us just a few minutes shy of being given the lunch menu. After studying it beforehand, I was planning on customizing my meal by building my bowl, fit with jasmine rice, spicy chicken, pineapple pico de gallo and anything else that sounded appetizing.
But that would have to wait.
The dinner menu was less customizable but much more substantial. Small disclaimer: most names of the items are in Spanish. But don’t worry, the descriptions below are helpful and self-explanatory.
The Platitos section of the menu is your first stop if you’re visiting with friends. The plates are designed for sharing but are more filling than your normal appetizer. The menu offers something for everyone, ranging from lamb chops to skillet-baked chorizo, even shredded duck and pork tenderloin bites.
Peyton quickly convinced me that we had to try something from the Platitos, and the frontrunner for us was the Queso de Oro, baked goat cheese and bacon skillet with Colony Urban Farm’s Oaxacan Honey and a Camino Bakery pan tostada. Just in this dish alone, it would be easy for locals to recognize some of the ingredients put on display. Colony Urban Farm is a less than 10-minute drive from Alma Mexicana, and Camino Bakery is a short walk up Fourth Street.
Once I noticed just a few of the local ingredients, I saw one highlighted in almost every menu item and raised my respect for Calvin and Giegengack. Not only did they want to create distinct and delicious food, but they also wanted to use ingredients that showcased what the community has to offer, whether it was fresh-cut meat, handpicked vegetables or freshly baked bread.
Since we had decided on the Queso de Oro, I wasn’t sure how many other plates we would want to share, but I gave the Meriendas or “snacks with drinks” a glance. There were fried avocado wedges, corn fritters with Mexican cojita cream and fresh tortilla chips paired with spicy guacamole. As enticing as they sounded, Peyton and I trusted that we would be back to try them with friends.
I was a little too excited to see the Las Favoritas, with barbacoa steak, crumbled queso fresco and blackberry pico de gallo. The blackberry pico de gallo had a short, seasonal run at The Porch last summer and I was heartbroken when I missed the opportunity to try it. Now was my chance. Luckily, the menu is just a bit flexible when it comes to protein options, and I was able to swap the barbacoa steak with the spicy shredded chicken. At only $3 a taco, I tried to practice self-control and ordered two. Peyton went for one of the Las Favoritas with the steak, and the Taco Pacifico, featuring grilled salmon, tomatillo crema, pickled red onion and habanero.
When our food arrived, it was safe to say we were happy with our choices.
The skillet was served with two hefty portions of warm goat cheese, each of which was surrounded by heaps of chopped bacon and topped with two toasted pieces of Camino pan tostada. The first bite was better than any grilled cheese I’ve ever tasted. The bacon was sweet and almost caramel-like from the Oaxacan honey, and the goat cheese practically melted in your mouth. The cheese itself had a golden-look to it and was sprinkled with paprika for another subtle layer of flavor. The only disappointing aspect was that the two pieces of bread went quickly between the two of us, and without them, the goat cheese and bacon were a bit heavy on their own. I secretly wished the dish offered the entire loaf of Camino bread. Regardless, Peyton was sent to goat cheese heaven, and my expectations for other Platitos dishes were set for future visits.
The tacos arrived at the table looking enticing. They came in corn tortillas, packed with shredded chicken, topped subtly with crumbled queso and covered in blackberry pico de gallo. As expected from prior experiences at The Porch, I was met with the perfect flavor combination for a fresh, mouth-watering taco experience.
The shredded chicken was spicy, but not enough to give you a kick in the mouth. It had enough to make things interesting. The blackberry pico de gallo was the real winner though, consisting of blackberries, red onion, red bell pepper and cilantro. It was a vibrant contrast to the chicken and tortilla, and I tried to rid myself of the regret of not having it sooner.
Both of our tacos were served with a spicy orange dipping sauce on the side, but the tacos had such solid flavor combinations that we both opted out of using it. When I was finishing up some of the fresh tortilla chips (which came as a side to our tacos) and Peyton was relishing in the last bit of goat cheese heaven, I noticed that each of the restaurant’s tables were full, and the dinner line had started to form.
Aside from the food, the energy of the restaurant was great but could get a bit loud depending on the time of day. The interior design mimics the artsy feel of Winston-Salem, with brightly colored walls and large windows, contrasted by the high, plain wooden tables, modern stools and plastic chairs. For the upcoming summer months, visitors can now their new patio space, which made its debut on April 13.
Overall the experience was better than I expected, and I was left with even more respect for Calvin and Giegengack, who graciously serve some incredible, local-based food in Winston-Salem. Whether or not you’re trying to celebrate Taco Tuesday, try your best to grab a table at Alma Mexicana, order a signature cocktail and let your taste-buds do the rest.
Jenn Zeleski is a student contributor to YES! Weekly. She is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Communications at High Point University.