By Robin Garr
I felt pretty sad last month when I read El Mundo’s social-media post announcing management’s decision to “put the original, quirky, tiny Frankfort Avenue location on pause until the Spring.”
The good news was that El Mundo’s newer, larger Highlands shop, which opened during the Covid-19 pandemic, remains open. It has expanded service to seven days a week, and recently launched an impressive Saturday, Sunday, and Monday brunch.
Still, even if management says the Frankfort Avenue spot is not dead but only sleeping, undergoing restructuring toward a spring reopening, the shuttering felt like a jolt.
I had literally followed El Mundo since the very start. It opened in 1995, just a year after we had moved back to Louisville from a few years in New York City and just a few blocks from our Crescent Hill abode.
I enjoyed its funky and yes, tiny and quirky quarters, and I was impressed by its creative approach to Mexican cuisine in a bill of fare that reminded me a lot of Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago. I would get back for follow-up reviews every few years, finding its quality and style lovably consistent over time. And I rushed over, mask firmly attached, to pick up takeouts at the new Bardstown Road shop in August 2020.
So when I heard about the new weekend-plus-Monday brunch, what do you think I was going to do? Yep! We rolled up to the Highlands operation, with its convenient parking out back, just as soon as I could.
The restaurant sprawls through three floors and the basement of an old brick dairy building. Looking for warmth on one of the recent near-0º days, we found a cozy booth in a smaller room
The brunch menu is available from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends and Mondays, but you’re welcome to choose from the main menu during those hours too. But we came with brunch in mind, and the special menu has plenty to offer.
Nine brunch options range in price from $9 (for avocado toast on Blue Dog baguette) to $19 (for Mexican-style steak and eggs with fries). Other options include Hatch green chili or butter swim biscuit and gravy (both $15); huevos rancheros, Mexican poutine, chilaquiles, and a breakfast burrito (all $13.50) and las frutas, a Latin-style fruit bowl ($9). Many of the dishes offer meat add-ons and vegan options with plant-based egg, cheese, and chorizo substitutes.
In addition to its usual beverages, El Mundo’s expansive bar offers brunch cocktails and an array of coffee drinks made with Red Hot Roasters coffee beans.
Red Hot Roasters? That’s about as good as it gets, so to banish the cold shivers we immediately summoned a large and refillable drip coffee ($4) in a pretty blue mug, and an eye-opening, intensely sweet Cubano ($4) frothed with sugar in a tiny espresso cup.
Steak and eggs and fries ($19, pictured at the top of the page) made a hearty midday meal. A good-size portion of butcher’s steak – also known as hanger steak, a cousin to skirt steak – was cut crosswise against the grain to make about 10 thin slices.
Ordered medium-rare and served just-so, the steak was crispy dark on the exterior, pink, juicy and flavorfully marbled within. A spicy chile rub imparted a slight, pleasant heat that married nicely with hints of smoke from the grill. it was topped with a portion of remarkably good fries. Surely house-made, they had been lightly coated with flour or cornstarch before frying to raise the crispness quotient.
A perfect, runny over-easy egg sat atop the fries, and the dish was flanked by a piquant orange-hued chipotle aioli and salsa macha, a rich condiment that originated in Veracruz, Mexico: a finely chopped blend of dried chiles, garlic, nuts and seeds.
El Mundo’s menu highlights the restaurant’s range of “amazing plant-powered vegan dishes,” so I had to try one just to see what it was about. I had absolutely no complaints about a vegan take on huevos rancheros ($13.50 in the carnivorous version, $16.50 with vegan egg and cheese analogues and soy-based vegan chorizo).
It was built on a wheat tortilla big enough to fill a large oval plate, topped with spicy, tender brothy black beans with pools of green-chile sauce, red salsa ranchero, and melted vegan cheese. The vegan egg was a chewy, savory light-orange square that simulated a hard-scrambled egg. It was different, but with a little fiery red chile sauce sprinkled on top, it was completely satisfying.
A shared ramekin of delicious Oaxacan chocolate pot de crème ($9) wrapped up a memorable bruch. Served cold, the chocolate was dense and dark, cooked with a touch of ancho chile just sufficient to leave a pleasant warm aftertaste behind. A dollop of smooth, soft whipped cream on top made a memorable finishing touch.
A flawless brunch for two was $55.12, plus a $13 tip.
Noise Level: Our relatively small room, one of several in the restaurant, filled up quickly for Saturday brunch hour, but a corner booth with a high back kept us in an easy conversational bubble.
Accessibility: The renovated century-old building covers several floors linked by wheelchair-inaccessible stairs. But the entrance, bar, restroom, and main-floor tables appear accessible to wheelchair users.