Ellos is basic — and wonderful.
It is really a storefront, right on South Broadway, a street where traffic and parking can be, um, challenging. A friend calls it a food truck that doesn't move. There's a little al fresco dining, four to six chairs on the sidewalk, but essentially this is a take-out and delivery operation. Yet, humble though it might be, Ellos is turning Lexington on to another riff on the Latino kitchen, merging influences from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
There are a few essential building blocks: strips or small cubes of marinated and grilled rib-eye steak, chicken and pork; fresh and cooked vegetables; very special rice (more about that later); frijoles; guacamole; and salsas. Sounds familiar, right? Yet in the hands of this tiny family business, we get fine new combinations in generous proportions that are so inexpensive you almost feel guilty. Almost.
One of the best items at Ellos (pronounced AY-yos) is the rice. It is pale yellow, savory with a sofrito — an aromatic base that usually includes onion, peppers, tomato and garlic — and studded with tender little pigeon peas that make it a more delicate version of the usual rice and beans.
You can get a side of rice for $2, but a nice helping is stuffed inside the giant burritos, along with refried beans, cheese and the meat of your choice. Given that even a small burrito can be heavy, I ordered one with the moist grilled chicken and one with vegetables. Get some of their nice chunky guacamole, along with a soda if you're eating there, and you have a meal for two for less than $10.
Another hearty option is the torta. Here again, the essentials of pork, chicken, steak and vegetables appear — take your pick — and are stacked between a grilled bun with avocado, lettuce and cheese spilling out the sides. It is a rich, slightly messy, but truly fabulous sandwich. Grilling the bread makes all the difference, in taste and in keeping the torta from getting soggy en route.
But there is a light side to Ellos as well.
There are soft tacos, with whatever meat you choose, garnished three ways: bright "Latino style" with cilantro and onion; milder "American" with lettuce, cheese and tomato; or "Wildcat," which blends the two and adds sour cream. Give me the Latino version any day, where the ingredients shine most. Whichever you pick, though, the fresh tortillas will have that slight lime aroma, and the meats will be tender and juicy.
I haven't discussed the homemade salsas yet. Now is a good time because they transform the tacos into spicy treats. The red is pretty hot but milder than the tomatillo/jalapeño-based green.
The red sauce is also the key to the terrific tamales, tender pouches of masa (corn meal) "cakes," stuffed with salsa-coated pork, chicken or vegetables and steamed in corn husks. They are small and light. Try all three. Why not? They're just $3 each.
Lexington has been building toward real Mexican fare for a while, and we have long had a single Puerto Rican/Cuban presence in the food scene that does that table justice. But now, with Ellos, we have a merger of the two with a twist from the Dominican Republic.
Limited seating or not, this is very good news.
Ellos on Broadway
Where: 406 S. Broadway
Phone: (859) 523-6328
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thu.-Sat.
Other: Limited parking. Limited seating. No alcohol served. Downtown delivery: $3.50 with minimum order of three tacos. All items: $2-$7.99.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.