First Bite: El Centro

Neighborhood gem, or haute-Mex me-too? It’s a little of both.

el centro

Photograph by Glenn Scott

A pork taco at El Centro costs $5. It’s a detail worth mentioning not because it’s curiously steep (it is) or because it isn’t good (it’s pretty darn tasty), but because it has inadvertently become the story. Like a scandal hijacking a news cycle, this South End newcomer’s ill-calibrated pricing undercut what should have been summer’s pitch-perfect dining narrative, given the recent glut of glitzy, stylized cocinas storming Boston: Sonora expat opens homey South End eatery! Authenticity amid faux-Mex poseurs! But in a town where $40-entrée pioneers Ken Oringer and Michael Schlow hawk tacos averaging $3.67 and $4.50, respectively, $5 is a bold statement. The neighborhood-gem idea loses meaning.

That’s a shame, because El Centro’s already got a few winning, nuanced moves. The fresh corn tortillas are gloriously toothsome; try the quesadillas ($6) filled with chorizo or huitlacoche (corn fungus!) instead of the offending tacos and you can join the caps-locked Yelp frenzy with a clean conscience. Is cheesy grilled corn ($7) clichéd yet? Either way, chef-owner Allan Rodriguez’s is solid, sporting Romano rather than the usual cotija. After two visits, my favorite dish was camarones papantla à la Boston (pictured at left, $22), shrimp stuffed with mozzarella, wrapped in bacon, then crisped. It’s not especially Mexican (nor, for that matter, Bostonian), but a dish this good needs no genealogy. The space itself looks fabulous, a night-and-day transformation from its dowdy Siraj Café days: cheery yellow trim around the windows, tasteful Mexican tchotchkes, hipster-approved low lighting.

A few flaws, some serious: The guacamole ($7) is bland, except for when it’s a salt lick. The mole tastes like a three-note barbecue sauce, not a multilayered masterpiece. The servers are friendly but harried. And is there a three-cube limit on ice? Happily, there’s still time to work out the kinks — and winning the taco price wars might be a good place to start.

472 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-262-5708.