Alto Cinco, Syracuse, N.Y.

Westcott Street was one of “those” places when I was in high school. You know what I’m talking about. It was full of bars and weird people and college students. It had an art cinema and a hippy bookstore where you could get tarot cards and patchouli oil. It was the type of place you, a goofy suburban 16-year-old wanted to go, but your parents refused. They, of course, knew better, because terrible decision making was your calling card.

But, you grew up and so did Westcott Street. Syracuse’s counterculture capital shifted into a hipster enclave. Artisan coffeemakers roast beans their now, and the cinema is now a concert stage. The hippies are fewer but still there, as is Dorian’s, and even your parents would go there now because of Alto Cinco, and everyone can find something to eat at Alto Cinco. We made one of our far too infrequent trips to the two-decade old eatery located next to the Westcott Theater on a recent Saturday night. The weather was warm but not humid, so The Wife and I opted for an outdoor table.

Alto Cinco is one of “those” restaurants. You know what I’m talking about. They make everything fresh from salsas to guacamoles to other sauces, the fillings for their tacos and burritos, and the cornbread that you wish you could buy by the pan. Owner Johanna Yorke has extended the brand to her downtown cantina Otro Cinco, adding some Spanish flavors to the mix, but the original, Latin-American centric Alto Cinco has long been one of Syracuse’s best known restaurants for the use of local ingredients, slow cooking, and big flavor.

The menu features an assortment of proteins — bean, tofu, chicken, jerk chicken, fried catfish, and shrimp, primarily — presented as burritos, tacos and enchiladas. The menu is vegan-friendly and has a number of gluten-free options. Whole wheat and gluten-free tortillas are available, as is brown rice. Prices are reasonable as well. Tacos plates range from $6.25 to $10.25, burritos are in the $10 to $12 range, and even the most-expensive entree is only $16. 

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The Wife and I started with chips, salsa and guacamole because one does not go to Alto Cinco without ordering the guacamole. There is a certain addictive quality to their avocado-cilantro-onion-lime dip that one simply cannot replicate in a home kitchen. Luckily, the Wife was content to make her way through the pico de gallo, leaving the guac to me.

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By my count, there are 17 different burritos on the menu, including the covered burrito. Alto Cinco’s burritos are made with 12-inch tortillas and the covered is densely stuffed with rice, cheese, black beans, salsa, sour cream and cabbage. It’s smothered in both red and green sauce, and cheese before being baked. Served with a side salad and a generously-sized cube of jalepeño cornbread, the burrito is more than filling. It’s daunting. I’m not a small person, nor am I one to push away from a table easily. About 1/3 of my burrito and the entirety of the cornbread came home with me. This was not a decision of want more than it was one of physical limitation. The earthy sauces formed a dominant flavor complemented by the creamy blend of beans and cheese inside.

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The Wife, on the other hand, made quick work of her spinach enchiladas. Alto’s enchiladas are served as a pair of 6-inch corn tortillas with black beans and cheese on the inside, and red or green sauce, or mole on the outside. They are then baked with cheese on top and served with a side salad. The Wife opted for the tomatillo-based green sauce on her enchiladas. No trace of them were left. She complimented the pairing of spinach and tomatillo, saying that the subtle heat of the salsa married the stuffing nicely.

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We skipped dessert and coffee in lieu of a trip to a local bar since we had childcare for the evening.

Alto Cinco is not authentic Mexican as it is an interpretation. Catfish is not your average burrito filling, nor is tofu, but then again Alto Cinco is anything but an average restaurant. It’s one of “those” places. Without ever resting on its laurels, it continues to earn its place on any list of Syracuse’s best restaurants.

Alto Cinco is located at 526 Westcott St. in Syracuse’s Westcott neighborhood. It is open weekdays and Saturday for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sunday for brunch. Takeout and delivery are available. Dinner for two, with drinks, was $73 with tip.

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