Every once in a great while I find myself looking at a dish, moved by its flavor, its beauty, its daring, asking How the heck did this happen? At Las Puertas, a small, humble dining room on the West Side, it happened again and again.
The answer lies in the hands of chef-owner Victor Parra Gonzalez. Born and raised in Acapulco, Mexico, he was trained in classic French technique in Montreal and Italian fine dining in Niagara Falls. He opened his 35-seat restaurant in February, intent on offering his adopted city a chance to share his culinary dreams.
In most restaurants the chef's biography is irrelevant, or an occasionally glimpsed background, to the menu on offer. At Las Puertas, it's at the center of the plate, the key to cracking the delicious cipher of his cuisine.
How else to understand dishes like his pozole ($13)? Traditionally hominy corn kernels in chile-laced meat broth, Gonzalez has translated it into a bowl of ramen, translated from Japanese to Mexican idioms.
The house-made noodles are white corn, luxuriating in a clear, deeply flavored broth of goat, chicken, pork, aromatics and three chiles, added tableside. There's creaminess from the yolk of a soft-cooked egg, tang from pickled enoki mushrooms, herbal accent from epazote-cilantro oil, and crunch from habanero onions. I wanted the bowl to be bigger, the broth hotter. But it was an astonishing achievement, familiar to pozole and ramen fans, yet resolutely new.
Consider the guacamole ($8). It is chunky, made with ripe Haas avocados accented with scallion, tomato and lime, served with white corn chips. This sublime combination is where average guacamole ends, and Las Puertas' begins. Black sesame crackers, lime candy and salty white meringue added flavor contrasts, as well as a spicy sprinkle made from three traditional Mexican ingredients: chiles, chocolate and crickets.
If the thought of crickets bug you, tell the staff and they'll leave them off. Communication is another hallmark of Las Puertas, as Gonzalez and his cooks present their dishes themselves, without dedicated servers. A personal guide to the thoughts and influences behind your dish adds rare intimacy.
This design also raises the possibility that some customers could be shorted face time with the chef if the house is full. I can't tell, because Gonzalez has known me since his first restaurant, Jaguar at the Bistro in Youngstown, and stopped to answer questions.
That's how I know the goat cheese tortellini ($16) resulted from his determination to harness the flavors of birria, Mexican goat stew, with his pasta-making skills. Four tender-skinned dumplings are filled with green onion goat cheese, and topped with shaved walnuts. Clear broth underneath gets its depth from goat bones and four types of chile. It was the kind of bite you regret swallowing, and I drank off the remaining broth.
Gonzalez found the border between Mexico and Italy again with his burrata ($17). Oaxaca cheese replaced mozzarella as its shell, with house-made ricotta-like green onion requeson as filling. Underneath was smoky, chunky charred tomato salsa, with chile arbol, cilantro and lime, inside a halo of cilantro-infused olive oil. Lemon-sunflower granola added a crunchy topper.
In his pork pibil ($19), Gonzalez refined this Yucatecan specialty into twin ingots of tender shredded pork, firmed into a French-style terrine before being crisped for service. They arrived in a pool of refined annatto-pineapple jus and a dab of onion requeson. The caramelized sweetness of long-cooked pork imbued with spices had me on the verge of a porkgasm.
Ceviche ($17) made a welcome departure from the tomato-based norm with a buttermilk base for smoother tartness than citrus alone. Black grouper ribbons, "cooked" in lime and a hint of habanero, were accented with fresh dill, cucumber and the toastiness of wakame powder.
Another offspeed spice choice that scored surprising success was garam masala, the Indian mixture, framing the carne asada ($32) flavor profile. A N.Y. strip was seasoned and seared, then seared with parsnip slivers, avocado salsa and pickled cactus.
Intricate dessert compositions ($10), overseen by pastry chef Jennifer Batt, tasted as artful as they looked. Rhubarb and gin sorbet joined tart rhubarb compote that rubbed buttery pistachio cake the right way, with lemon thyme crème anglaise underneath.
Fresh local cherries pickled in mescal, honey graham tuile, cream cheese ice cream, toasted marshmallow and candied hazelnuts delighted, even though the chocolate component, a sort of gelatin strip, didn’t rise to the rest. Bars of frozen rose wine and peach mousse accompanied local strawberries, strawberry granita, pineapple mint and oat crumble for an of-the-moment fruit celebration.
There's no beer, a brief wine list and custom cocktails ($10). A cucumber-mezcal effort was refreshing fun, and a sour with pineapple and coconut rum topped with red wine was tasty, but mescal-hibiscus and rosemary-tequila cocktails seemed stridently astringent.
There's nothing else like Las Puertas in Buffalo. For value-first diners, the prices will seem a notch too high, and most of the portions a notch too small. To me, they're entirely reasonable considering the work these dishes entail, and the sensations they deliver.
If you value a meal that feeds not only your belly but perhaps even your sense of wonder, consider Las Puertas, which means "the doors." It can take you to a world you've never tasted.
Las Puertas – 9 plates (out of 10)
Where: 385 Rhode Island St. (807-1141)
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Prices: $8 to $32.
Wheelchair accessible: No
Gluten-free: Pozole, ceviche, many others