By Robin Garr
Hola! I finally got back to a favorite taqueria, El Mariachi, last week, and oh, did it make me happy.
Now I wish it hadn’t taken me so long, but I felt uneasy about the idea before I finally got fully vaccinated. There’s typically some language barrier for me at the storefront places I love best – I can read Spanish fairly well, but I’m not good with conversations en español – so I couldn’t gear up to investigate a favorite spot’s takeout and curbside delivery options.
Now that’s over, and I hope it’s over to stay. We headed out Lagrange Road to El Mariachi for lunch and found it back in full operation. This little place with its roots in Mexico’s Guanajuato region looks the same as I remembered: Walking in feels like crossing a barrier into a the colorful little subtropical Mexican village of your dreams. Just about every surface, including the heavy wooden chairs and booth backs, is covered with big, bright works of Mexican art, depicting such varied scenes as toucans, an ox cart, and a woman gently holding a big clay pot.
El Mariachi social media is bilingual, declaring itself “Restaurante mexicano una nueva experiencia en tacos con sabor original” (“Mexican restaurant, a new experience in tacos with original flavor”), while assuring Anglophones that “Our chefs prepare every dish with care … casual, everyday style food made from fresh, natural ingredients from local farms makes our menu reminiscent of Mom’s home cooking.”
The menu – accessible via smartphone from a QR code on each table – is bold in color, too, with large images of many dishes. It’s entirely in English, with only the names of familiar dishes in Spanish.
Ten pages long, it includes both familiar Mexican dishes and a separate section for Tex-Mex options. You’ll find just about all the basics, starting with a dozen soft tacos priced from $2.49 to $3.49, an attractive toll that invites one to order several.
A choice of eight tortas – Mexican sandwiches on traditional bolillo rolls from the panaderia next door – are $10.99 to $12.99. Thick gorditas and open-face sopesitos are just $3.99; oversize huaraches topped with taco fillings are $8.99. On the Tex-Mex side, quesadillas, chimichangas, taco salads, and burritos start at $2.99 (for a crunchy American-style taco) to $13.99 (for a seafood-stuffed burrito de mariscos).
Fajitas and other favorite entrees top out at $17.99 for fajita Guanajuato (the only dish explicitly billed as Guanajuato-style), loaded with arrachera (marinated spicy skirt steak), grilled onions and peppers and Mexican sausage.
Dinner entrees include caldos (large beef soups filled with ingredients); molcajetes de la parilla (grilled meat or seafood served in stone bowls), and a dozen fancy seafood dishes ranging from $14.99 to $25.99.
We didn’t get into the pricey dinner entrees, but I’m happy to report that our simple lunch was well prepared and delicious, just as I remembered it.
It’s easy to unthinkingly scarf down the complimentary chips and salsa that are almost ubiquitous at Mexican eateries, but it’s worth pausing to savor El Mariachi’s chips. They are are thick and crunchy and full of the flavor of masa, Mexican cornmeal; they’re freshly fried from thick, just-made corn tortillas. The roughly pureed tomato-and-green-chile salsa is simple, just gently piquant, and very tasty, too.
We ordered three tacos (pictured at the top of the page) from the list: lengua (tongue, $3.49); carnitas (pork, $2.49), and lomo (beef, $3.49). They all came out packed tightly together in a plastic basket lined with wax paper.
They were each built on doubled fresh corn tortillas that seemed to have been quickly fried or grilled with oil, imparting an unfamiliar yet appealing gently greasy character. They were all topped with the traditional garnish of fresh cilantro and chopped raw onion.
I’m pretty sure our pork taco was pastor, not the carnitas that we ordered, but that was all right. Rather then the crunchy fried finish of carnitas, these were big chunks of delicious, juicy slow-roasted pork with many tender fragments and a few burnt crispy ends.
Beef tongue scares some people, but if you won’t eat a lengua taco you’re missing a Mexican experience. It was cut into small dice, tender, reminiscent of gamey pot roast.
The lomo beef was sliced very thin with fatty edges and on the tough side, with a strong beef flavor.
I’m committed to include a good vegetarian option in every review, but that can be tough at a meat-centric taqueria. The manager, whose English was quite a bit better than my Spanish, worked with me to come up with an off-menu veggie burrito ($6.99).
It turned out delicious, a large wheat tortilla stuffed with crisp, slightly oily, fresh-fried bits of onion and red, green and yellow pepper, coated with melted queso. First-rate Mexican rice and frijoles refritos alongside made it a meal, and squeeze jars of fiery red salsa and even fierier green salsa brought it all together.
with a sweet-tart Jarritos Tamarindo Mexican soft drink ($2.49), our taqueria lunch came to a reasonable $20.09. I tossed the 20 percent rule out the window for a tab that small and added a $10 tip.