Tuesday, June 12, 2012

You’ll Have to Bear With Me…

It’s going to take me a few minutes to get to the point.

We were attending one of the daytime concerts at the Music Heritage Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The band (I don’t remember which one) was taking a break and one of the musicians was talking to a fellow traveler about the restaurant scene in the area. He was explaining that the choices were limited. While new restaurants would quickly open, they would just as quickly close. He—the musician—blamed this on the small permanent population that couldn’t support a large number of restaurants during the off season. But he mentioned, and I found this most interesting, that because the area has a surprisingly large Hispanic population, some of the best and most reasonably priced food could be found at locally-owned Mexican restaurants.

Using this information along with my observation that the parking lot at El Puerto Mexican Grill in Wytheville, VA, is usually full—especially at lunch—we decided to explore Mexican food as served in Southwest Virginia.

El Puerto has a front dining patio, and inside the space has been
divided into more intimate dining spaces. Unlike many Mexican restaurants, the décor at El Puerto is quite subdued. The walls were painted in a soft rust color, and here and there were some kind of

wall hangings that included holders for flower pots. The dark wood booths were carved along the sides and the top of the booth backs

contained scrolled ironwork. That, along with the light fixtures, was about it.

With our menu came an order of salsa and warm tortilla chips. (Sorry. No photo. But you know what salsa and tortilla chips look like.) After tasting the salsa, I had hopes for the rest of the meal. The salsa was uncooked, was semi-chunky, and had plenty of pepper heat to keep me happy. By the time we had worked our way through the menu, the serving was gone.

It took a while to order because the menu at El Puerto is huge and totals over 180 items. Lucky for you, I won’t list them all. In fact, I’ll only talk about those items that we ordered. But I will say that when faced with a menu that large, I tend to fall back on my Mexican restaurant favorites.

I decided to go “all a la carte”. My selections included an appetizer portion of guacamole that was creamier than I expected, although it did contain some small chunks of chopped avocado. It sorely needed an infusion of lime to cut the rich buttery nature of the avocado.

My plate included a decent ground beef taco that was topped with what I think was grated white American cheese. The meat was lacking that harsh “Old El Paso” taco seasoning flavor—which I appreciated. A touch of guacamole and a bit of the remaining spicy salsa was all that was needed.

My second item was a chicken enchilada that contained large pieces of shredded white chicken rolled in a corn tortilla. The red enchilada sauce was fairly mild and had an underlying smoky flavor.

Rounding out the plate was the Chiles Rellenos Poblanos, a good sized poblano chile stuffed with—I am guessing here—the same white American cheese that topped the taco and was covered with the same red sauce that was on the enchilada.

Chuck chose the lunch beef fajita plate which came with two flour tortillas, refried beans, and guacamole salad. The beef was cut into much thinner slices that you normally find in fajitas and, therefore, had more surface to soak up the marinade, which then developed a

savory crust when the meat hit the cooking surface. Thinner beef did not mean drier beef. It meant tastier beef.

The beans on his plate were O.K. He enjoyed them and that’s all that mattered.

On this day, we decided to share a dessert—the Xango (pronounced something like “chango”) which was a pastry “tortilla” wrapped around cheesecake then fried and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. As we were positioning Kitty Humbug for his photo op, our server passed our table, did a double-take, got out his cell phone, and photographed us photographing a stuffed cat toy posed over a plate of Xango.

This dessert reminded us of the battered and fried cheesecake served at Go Fish! in Rehoboth Beach, DE. The outside gets crisp and heat begins to melt the cream cheese into a sweet lusciousness.

I have to admit that this was pretty good Mexican food. In fact, much better than I expected and El Puerto earns a 4.0 Addie rating.

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