The fish taco at El Mundo

El Mundo: Still a favorite after 20 years

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than 20 years since we moved back to Louisville after a sojourn in New York City. This town has changed a lot in the past two decades, and certainly the Frankfort Avenue restaurant row has evolved almost beyond recognition.

“You’ll like Frankfort Avenue,” a friend told us as we packed the moving van to head west from Gotham. “There’s a great new place called the Irish Rover!” And she was right. Along with Deitrich’s, which had been a pioneer in the neighborhood, and more recent arrivals Porcini and a local coffee shop that preceded Heine Bros’ Crescent Hill branch, the avenue was looking pretty exciting.

And then in 1995 came El Mundo, and the “new” Frankfort Avenue was on its way. Add bustling Clifton, and the strip now houses at least 40 great local eateries and watering holes. What’s more, I can’t think of a single national chain restaurant among them, a locavore distinction that our friends over on Bardstown Road can’t claim.

What I liked about El Mundo then, I like about El Mundo today: its fare is authentic Mexican, yet it’s distinctly chef-driven, with creative touches in flavor and presentation that remind me of Chef Rick Bayless’s iconic Frontera Grill in Chicago.

El Mundo’s website links its lovably eclectic creativity to founding partner Bea Chamberlain’s time in Mexico, California, Seattle and Denver, with no mention of Chicago; and they’d know. But as a big fan of Frontera, I’m going to stick with my sense that El Mundo makes a fine alternative for us in the Derby City.

The place has grown over the years, adding a table-service dining room and very popular seven-seat bar upstairs, a few tables on the sidewalk out front, and a small but popular seasonal patio out back.

The menu, expanded since the arrivale of Chef Mike Boyle, offers plenty of options, from vegetarian and vegan choices (unusual for a Mexican eatery) to hardcore carnivorous delights like beef-heart tacos, a frequent special.

Main dishes are $8.25 to $16.95 (for the bountiful sampler trio, the combo plate).

We started a recent visit with a favorite: a generous crock of black bean and chipotle dip ($5.50), a thick and comforting savory blend of tender black beans mashed with jack cheese, smoky-hot chipotle peppers and Dos Equis beer. It’s rich and meaty (although it contains no meat), and I could eat a lot of it with El Mundo’s ultra-crisp chips.

But I wanted to save room for El Mundo’s fish tacos, ($14.95 for dinner, $7.95 for a smaller lunch version). It’s distinctly different from the usual San Diego-style fried fish. This is a generous block of grilled Icelandic cod, perched on a bed of salad greens on pair of white-corn tortillas. Accompanied with beans and rice, the heft of the cod on the soft, tender tortillas makes this a knife-and-fork meal, not finger food.

Tamales ($9.50) are meatless at El Mundo: It starts with the usual soft, sensuous cornmeal tamale dough in a corn husk wrapper, but it’s filled with meatless goodies: abundant crisp, sweet yellow corn, piquant poblano pepper and grilled onions, bound with Mexican cheese and accompanied with meat-free Mexican-style rice and beans.

With ice water and a tamarind-flavor Jarritos Mexican soft drink ($2.50), a hearty lunch for two came to $26.98, plus a $6 tip.

El Mundo
2345 Frankfort Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 91 points