By Robin Garr
If I’m going to go out for Mexican food, I’d really rather find my way to a taqueria or other small eatery run by immigrant neighbors. Someplace where the food is the real thing, where I need to be prepared to order in my awkward Spanish or by pointing at an item in the menu with a smile.
Someplace, in other words, like El Mariachi Restaurante Mexicano. This East End eatery, more than just a taqueria, has long been one of my favorite local spots for Mexican fare thanks to the quality of its food, the breadth of its menu, and its colorful, happy-making decor.
Not long ago, running an errand out Lagrange Road, I noticed to my surprise that things have changed. They’ve gotten better!
For years, El Mariachi and a cluster of other Latino shops – a carniceria (butcher shop), panaderia (bakery), and a supermercado (grocery) – had occupied the back leg of an L-shaped strip center, with a more North American string of shops (including a Mexican-American eatery) facing Lagrange Road.
Suddenly everything has changed! In December, El Mariachi moved into larger quarters in the front of the building. The entire structure is now painted the exuberant bright-adobe color that marks the properties of Mercado Guanajuato, a impressive immigrant-owned business that over the past 15 years has grown from this location into three Latino supermarkets and business clusters in immigrant-rich communities here, on Preston Highway, and on Bardstown Road in Fern Creek.
Naturally I got back as soon as I could, and I’m pleased to report that El Mariachi is just as good as ever. The new location’s two dining rooms are spacious, loaded with Mexican folk art (and even a couple of Dia de los Muertos images from Pixar’s movie Coco), with walls painted to resemble stone arches. There’s a short bar, a few flat-screens (two of them tuned to soccer, er, fútbol, at the time of our visit), and sturdy tables, booths, and chairs with their backs bearing molded images of stylized sombreros.
The large, colorful 10-page menu contains full English explanations for all the dishes, making it easy to enjoy the fare even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish.
It’s divided by type of dish – tacos, gorditas, huaraches, sopesitos, tortas, and more. Tacos. gorditas, and open-face sopesitos all go for $2.49 to $3.99, depending on filling (although you probably won’t eat just one). Even in the entree department prices top out around $19.99 (for a steak carne asada dinner plate or some of the fancier fajitas with shrimp or a shrimp, chicken, steak, chorizo and pineapple mix).
It’s almost impossible to stop eating the exceptional chips and salsa. Fresh-made corn tortillas are cut into triangles, fried to order, drained of excess oil, and served hot. The piquant salsa is impressive, too, a textured blend of red chiles and tomatoes, tiny diced jalapeños and cilantro.
A carnitas taco ($2 49) was made Mexican-style on a doubled corn tortilla, simply dressed with chopped onions and cilantro, with a lime wedge and squeeze bottles of red and green salsa alongside. The house-made tortillas are a bit thicker than your bagged commercial model, an advantage in building tacos that don’t fall apart. The carnitas was long cooked, pork falling into shreds, flavorful pork with a subtle mild red pepper flavor hovering in the background..
Gorditas are like a tortilla made of soft masa flour, split from one end, stuffed with filling and fried. We tried a meatless option, rajas con queso ($3.99), a mix of chopped mild poblano peppers and queso fresco melted together. It went very well with the corn flavor and crisp texture of the fried gordita.
Sopesitos are built open-face on an extra-thick corn tortilla that resembles a corn cake. It’s topped with choice of meat, queso fresco, chopped lettuce, crema, and more grated cheese. They’re $3.99 plus an additional charge for your meat choice. We ordered lengua (beef tongue), which added $1.50. The distinctly gamey tongue meat was soft with crusty charred edges. Its juices soaked into the thick corn cake.
A larger dish, chile relleno ($12.99), featured a large, dark green poblano chile pepper stuffed with queso fresco (ground beef is also an option), baked in a light batter, slathered with tomato sauce, topped with more grated cheese and a zig-zag of crema. It comes with excellent Mexican-style rice and frijoles refritos.
The pepper was mild but flavorful. The rice and beans were also exceptional. The rice grains were each separate and tinted orange by mild chiles and tomatoes. It was studded with veggies perhaps selected for their colors: Green peas; carrot,, red and green bell pepper dice, yellow corn kernels, and white onion bits. The beans were noteworthy, too, a rich, creamy puree topped with grated Mexican cheese.
At a $26.46 total for two plus a $7.49 tip, this was one of the best affordable lunches I’ve had lately.
Noise level: The large dining room was only partly filled, but the combined sounds of background music and a full-volume soccer match on the flat screen pushed noise levels to an average 69.3dB (pushing the limits for conversation) with peaks to 78.1 dB (a little too loud for comfort).
Accessibility: The restaurant and restrooms appear accessible to wheelchair users.