By Amy L. Carlson   Published May 20, 2004 at 5:41 AM Photography: Neil Kiekhofer of Front Room Photography

{image1} In Mayan, Xel-há (pronounced Shell-Ha) translates to "the place where the water is born." An ancient city on the Yucatan Peninsula, Xel-há is a little known archeological treasure filled with history and rustic beauty.

It's appropriate then, that a quaint, authentic Mexican restaurant, which offers all indigenous, freshly made cuisine, including Horchata (rice or barley fresh water), takes the name Xel-há.

Xel-há (2301 S. Howell Ave.) opened earlier this month in a tiny restaurant space that housed Taqueria Azteca some five years ago and has been the home of several short-lived establishments since that time. With the expansion of nearby Café Lulu and the incoming Heaven City BBQ restaurant in this Bay View neighborhood, the corner is ripe for another good, solid culinary offering, and Xel-há is the perfect addition.

The owners of Xel-há, a young MIAD graduate and four of his friends, gave the location a complete facelift in just a few weeks. The restaurant façade features a charming thatched roof and brightly lit windows, which allow you a glance at the rustic décor within. Browns, golds and rusts adorn the walls, which feature a few colorful paintings and a beautiful beaded poncho. The café chairs are accented with lovely deep blue cushions and covers. Everything about the 35-person capacity Xel-há, from the rustic tiled tables to the deep green foliage, is warm and earthy.

Xel-há's menu features traditional Mexican favorites including nachos, tacos and burritos, but we were pleasantly surprised to find they also offer tortas (Mexican hot sub sandwiches) and a variety of main dishes that are based solely on their sauces: Encacahuatado (peanut sauce), Almendrado (almond sauce), Pipian Verde (pumpkin seed sauce), Chile Verde (tomatillo sauce) and Mole de Oaxaca (chocolate peanut sauce). Diners choose from chicken breast, pork medallions or shrimp to complement the authentic house sauces.


We ordered a guacamole appetizer ($4.95) to start our meal. The guacamole was extraordinarily fresh and flavorful, with large pieces of perfectly ripened avocado, onions and tomatoes and a sprinkle of fresh Chihuahua cheese. My dinner companion, who normally does not care for guacamole, was taken with this homemade, garden-fresh variety and the crisp, blue corn tortilla chips that went with it.

The Sopa de Tortilla (tortilla soup, $2.50) was equally impressive, with a wonderful hearty chicken and tomato broth, crisp strips of fried tortillas and more of the flavorful Chihuahua cheese that accompanied all of our dishes at Xel-há. Two small slices of a light and spicy jalapeno bread came with each bowl of soup, which was fantastic when dipped in the rich broth.

For our entrees, we ordered Xel-há's meat combination tacos (chopped pork, beef steak, bacon and chorizo, $7.95) and the Chicken Mole de Oaxaca ($8.95). Both dishes came with fresh, warm corn tortillas and a generous side of Xel-há's rice, a flavorful and fluffy white rice with carrots, peas and corn. I would go back to Xel-há's for this rice alone.

The tacos came with homemade pico de gallo and more of the rich guacamole. When my companion requested hot sauce, our server brought the spicier of their two freshly made sauces for him to try. The sauce was exquisite, with a rich, sweet flavor at first taste, followed by a blast of heat at the end. It worked wonderfully with the fresh tacos, the meat was a tad overdone and dry, though.


The chicken breast in mole sauce, too, was a bit dry. We accredited this to the typical kinks a new restaurant needs to work through in its first few weeks. However, the mole sauce had a brilliant chocolate-coffee and ancho chile flavor and was garnished with roasted sesame seeds and peanuts, which made the dish very good despite the overcooked meat. The sauce was vivid with chocolate and spice and was one of the best moles I have had the pleasure to eat.

We completed our dining experience with an order of flan ($3.50), since they were temporarily out of Pay de Queso (homemade cheese cake with mango sauce, $4.50), but the Chihuahua cheese flan was not disappointing. It was luscious and creamy and came with two jumbo, fresh walnuts and a side of whipping cream.

Xel-há will be serving authentic margaritas and other libations when its liquor license is issued later this month. In the interim, you can choose from a selection of Mexican sodas, coffee or hot chocolate. We enjoyed refreshing Naranjadas (orange juice with club soda, $1.95) at this visit.

Xel-há is sure to please. It is a definite must-try for anyone who appreciates fresh, unique cuisine. Xel-há is located at 2301 S. Howell Avenue, and is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m, Sundays 11 a.m.-8 p.m. All major credit cards are accepted. Street Parking. For reservations, call (414) 294-4848.