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Duck confit pozole Photo by Ash Daniel
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Snug seating at Estilo Photo by Ash Daniel
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Tuna ceviche Photo by Ash Daniel
It's 6:30 p.m. on a Friday, and we're running late. I call ahead and am told we'll be the third on the wait list: "Expect about 20 minutes." My little girl has a huge appetite, and I'm concerned that we might not last that long before a meltdown ensues. This is the hazard where reviewing and fatherhood intersect.
Housed in the shops at the corner of Patterson Avenue and Three Chopt Road, Estilo is the perfect spot for a pre-show dinner if you happen to be in University of Richmond territory. From the outside, it looks like any other strip-mall bistro, but as soon as you enter, the energy hits you. This place is hopping. It's a bit over-crowded at the door, where there is little room to absorb the wait-list overflow. The tall tables in the windows are occupied with the hardcore happy-hour hangers-on. The tables and booths that fill the remaining floor space are cozy in a Manhattan kind of way. And we're in luck — there's a good friend waving us over to join him.
The party of three becomes a party of six, and we'll need separate checks because they have to leave to catch a concert at the Modlin Center. Is this a problem for our server, Wendy? Not at all — she's happy to accommodate us. Our friends have already ordered, but that's OK, we'll just share whatever comes to the table as it comes. We put in a mammoth order of our own, and soon, plates are arriving one after the other. It's a smorgasbord of Latin American treats.
The combination of front and back waiters adds to the general human crush of the place, but actually results in quick service. A few errors occur, but are quickly remedied when Wendy checks back. Her focus amid the din is impressive. "Oh, you asked for more tortillas — not tortilla chips … I'll be right back with that."
The food is vibrant and fresh. A round osalsas (spicy avocado-tomatillo, smoky roja, ají amarillo pepita) is accompanied by chicharrónes (fried pork rinds) and chips. The guacamole features a little heat from chipotles in adobo and is cooled by the addition of queso fresco on top. The real treat of the appetizers is the papa rellena (potato fritters stuffed with cheese and Peruvian roast chicken). The provoleta is nicely seared provolone cheese adorned with chimichurri sauce, grilled vegetables and the ubiquitous chicharrónes. While the provolone is delicious, the dish fails to completely incorporate the ingredients — the vegetables seem like an add-on that isn't well thought out.
As we move into the dinner courses, the stack of wrecked plates from the appetizer round is cleared away, but not without some last swipes at the residual sauces. The slow-roasted carnitas are hearty, moist, flavorful and enough to share, and this straightforward dish is a good litmus test for a Latin kitchen. Our elbows are working for position around the table. "Try this with that salsa … and throw a chicharrón on top, too!"
A beautifully seared tuna steak, over a salad of jicama, carrots, snow peas, fennel and onions with tamarind-mint vinaigrette, is elegant and complex. The layers of flavor yield a variety of palatal effects and the portion is big enough to share — and thankfully, all the entrées are sharable.
The real highlight, we all agree, is the duck confit pozole. It's a deep, rich hominy stew featuring guajillo chili-tomato broth, cabbage, oregano, lime and cilantro, with a generous portion of duck confit and a crisp duck-skin chicharrón atop. This is: breathe-deep-and-savor-the-aroma good. This is: I'll-come-back-just-for-this-dish good. And though we were lucky to find friends to share a rushed, chaotic, serendipitous meal, I would have gladly waited for a table of our own in order to arrive at this happy ending.
7021 Three Chopt Road, 484-6046, estilorichmond.com
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Lunch $7 to $14; dinner $14 to $23