Perro Salado

Mad for mole? A modern take on Mexican has a cult following in Newport.

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 Perro Salado  19 Charles St., Newport, 619-4777, Hours Open Mon.-Sat. for dinner, Sundays for brunch. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessibility is highly doubtful; corners are tight, as are tables. Street parking. Cuisine Modern Mexican. Capacity About seventy-five in five separate rooms. Vibe Über relaxed — evidenced by the tequila-happy cheerleader at the bar wearing paint-splattered sweatpants and a pashmina. Local bands also serenade diners in the evening, upping the alternative air.  Prices Appetizers: $8–$14; entrees: $8–$25; dessert: $7. Karen’s picks Guacamole, sticky pork ribs, lobster quesadilla, chili relleno, fish tacos, hanger steak.
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Superlatives are rarely acceptable in critical analyses, but they are occasionally warranted. Such is the case with Perro Salado — or “Salty Dog” — a three-and-a-half-year-old restaurant on Newport’s Charles Street owned by Nebraska native Andi Johnson and Boston brothers Dan and Russell Hall. Disappointed by their all-American ethnicity? Don’t be. Perro is an amalgam of authentic Latin American ingredients, local produce and contemporary kitsch that translates into the best Mexican food served not only in Newport but in the whole state.

The fact that such food comes out of a structure deeply rooted in Americana — the 300-year-old colonial Decatur House in which military hero Stephen Decatur was raised — only emphasizes the relationship between the continental cuisines. It’s not utterly authentic, it’s not wholly modern, but it is entirely good.

The layout of the house will be familiar to native Rhode Islanders, a maze of small rooms designed for families who never grew more than five feet tall. The foyer has been replaced by a casual bar and an open kitchen that sits in back, pushing out bowls of beans as the neighborhood crowd streams in. Fireplaced sitting areas, even upstairs bedrooms, have morphed into dining rooms, each home to tables topped with water carafes made from empty liquor bottles. More unexpected, though, is the Christmas-lit bar in the back of the house that looks (and sometimes smells) like the fraternity house basement you wandered into after three plastic cups of NattyBo. The decor’s not too far off either: Diego Rivera-inspired lilies cover the wall, while wicker fans whir slowly overhead. The back door is often propped open so that you can catch sight of the twinkling patio and trellised ceiling or, if you’ve warmed yourself with too many spicy cucumber margaritas, grab a medicinal gulp of fresh air. And yet somehow, this adds to the charm. It’s a paradox of culture, class and geography, but the crossroad is familiar to anyone who longs for food you can eat with your fingers.
Dan Hall heads the kitchen, where he mixes classical (mountains of mashed avocado) with retro (the addictive pork ribs glazed in Coke, brown sugar and Mexican spices). It may be a travesty for culinary purists, but even they might go incognito to procure another plate. Guacamole, on the other hand, is so restrained in its seasoning — save for the shower of textural pepitas on top — that it’s almost deconstructed, with huge hunks of avocado sitting alongside tomatoes and large leaves of cilantro. And the portion is imposing. At $11, it appears to be a profit-losing endeavor but one that breeds staunch allegiance.

But where other Mexican restaurants rely on no more than a dozen ingredients, Hall is obsessed not only with local finds but also his own culinary palate. He loves duck and, damn it, he’s going to make you love it, too, no matter the effort. On some nights it’s covered in mole sauce, but if you can’t be convinced to join the dark side, he’ll bury thick chunks of meat under a tarp of melted cheese until you acquiesce ($12). He’s a master, in fact, of reworking what you like and morphing it into something you love. With inappropriate vigor. Exhibit A: quesadillas. Served with cheese? Great. Throw in some seasoning? Better. Sandwich half a lobster in between the two? It’s almost too good. $14? The gastronomic gods have put up their pulpit in Newport.

Hall does have a more delicate approach as well though, one that dominates the menu when summer produce is ample. Even after the first frost, baby beets and a rotating supply of fresh seafood, from red snapper to both blue and black fish, round out the specials. The mainstay crowd has come to rely on Hall’s signature element of surprise, one that sits comfortably alongside an inventory of familiarity. This is, after all, what separates Perro 
Salado from the neighborhood Mexican joint. It’s not generic, not interchangeable with the taco truck or local taqueria. Quite the contrary. Its quirky array of dishes solidifies it as a place that can’t be duplicated in character or cuisine. So while average burrito stands are content with corn mixed into their taco salads and lettuce sprinkled on their tostada, Hall’s exuberance and culinary sleight of hand is all over the menu. Cobs of corn, with their brittle husks tied back like ponytails, are deeply grilled and drizzled in chipotle mayonnaise ($7). Heads of romaine are left intact, also seared on the grill and, with a handful of jalapeno bacon and 
cotija cheese, made into a nouveau Caesar ($8).

That’s not to say, however, Hall can’t do conventional. Taqueria staples ($8) accompany slow-roasted pork, chicken or beef braised in tomato sauce. Fish tacos, with their hefty slabs of tilapia served with a bright cabbage slaw, and cornmeal-crusted chili relleno ($18) stuffed with pork and jack cheese, put vegetarian versions to shame. The only real danger of settling in at Perro Salado is that it’s tough to leave. Drinks turn into pitchers, pitchers turn into more pitchers of house-infused tequila margaritas, and soon everyone in the place is a long-lost friend. Even the waitstaff, perhaps the most alternative crowd outside of Julian’s, will spend free moments (there are few) chatting up their last trip to Texas, guyliner du jour or preference for vodka over beer.

If you’re forced to call a close to the evening, dessert is a fine way to do so. The options have a more expansive reach than Latin America, each dressed sweetly with a blooming flower and sprig of mint. Sopaipillas, small pillows of fried dough with chocolate sauce, are the most mainstream sweet, as even flan comes in an array of flavors such as caramel apple. Key lime pie is topped with a thick layer of cranberry mousse while cheesecake goes from pumpkin to mango-coconut. They’re not as novel as the main menu, but they add just enough spark to push past the pepitas and end with a pastry. With its pounds of whipped cream (everything is doused in it), Perro Salado’s not a dietary destination, but it is a destination. Rhode Islanders are famous for saying that forty-five minutes will get you anywhere in the state, and though it may take that long to get to Perro Salado, it’s worth both the time and the eight bucks in bridge fare. Because sometimes the best neighborhood hangout is just a little bit further down the block.


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