If the restaurant's name suggests you'll be serenaded by strolling musicians, don't be disappointed at their absence. It's the food that sets a rhythm that is as rife with intensity as it is with sedate nuances that give you intervals to savor the difference. Chef Jacova de Jesus Cruz's menu is stirred up with bombshells of flavor but also stumbles along the way.
My son, Alex, and I decided to jump around the menu, not thinking in terms of appetizers or entrees or side dishes. That made the dinner experience fun but apparently challenged the kitchen. His sopes and tamales arrived at the table almost 15 minutes before my enchiladas and chili relleno. That would have been bad enough if I had been able to sip on a glass of wine while I waited on my food. Unfortunately, El Mariachi serves beer but not wine. Being hungry and wine-deprived, I was cranky.
After what seemed like eons, the server brought my enchiladas and chili relleno. And — whoof — she was gone. Although it had taken a long time to be served, it took only a second for me to realize that my meal was cold. I waited and I waited, but the server didn't return.
Finally, I got up from the table and approached her to tell her my food was cold. She immediately retrieved it and returned to the kitchen. Another 15 minutes passed. There was a direct correlation between the second round of waiting and my worsening mood. When at last my meal arrived, I wasn't in the most positive frame of mind.
Let me be clear about our server. She seemed genuinely concerned about the delay, which I am sure was not her fault. I believe she simply did not have the experience to handle the situation more smoothly.
Alex's sopes, one beef and one chicken, each $2.99, were good choices. The masa was just crunchy enough on the outside and soft but substantial enough on the inside not to allow the meat to become soggy. A chili relleno ($2.99) was testament that an egg-battered poblano pepper oozing with melted cheese can be one of life's little pleasures.
I rarely order tamales because the ratio of meat to masa so often favors the masa. El Mariachi's chicken tamale ($3.99) suffered from such a malady. The beef enchilada with red sauce ($6.99) was so saucy it was practically an enchilada in soup. The profusion of sauce dwarfed the enchilada, diminishing the flavor of both and making for an unattractive presentation.
The menu presented other interesting choices, not the least of which included three fajitas ($11.99 to $13.99), mole poblano ($9.49) and camarones Acapulco ($11.99), shrimp with jalapeno and bacon.
Only a few days later, the cloud of poor service experience had drifted and I was in El Mariachi's neighborhood. I returned, this time for a taco fix. It was the first of many that are sure to follow.
Kentucky's legendary Colonel had his blend of secret spices that made his buckets of chicken famous around the world. The magic in El Mariachi's tacos ($2.25 to $3.49) is likely an equally secret blend of chilies and spices, and it deserves its fair share of accolades.
If I had not been harried and on the run after a late lunch, I would have followed my carne asada tacos with a couple of others, perhaps the pastor (marinated pork) or lengua (beef tongue). Tongue may be an acquired taste (and texture), but don't rule it out until you have tried it. And it's always fun to order when dining with folks who furrow their brows at anything other than meat and potatoes.
Not only were the tacos delicious, but the service was great. As I was preparing to leave, the same server and I smiled at each other and exchanged a knowing look. There had been a bumpy first experience. It happens. I left happy and told her I would be back. It will be soon.
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