Who doesn't love Mexican restaurants? For the most part, they are festive places eager to please their patrons. El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant & Cantina, the latest addition to the restaurant scene, is certainly that.
El Mariachi is in the space that had been what seemed like the largest Fazoli's on earth. It's spacious, bright and well staffed. The menu is pretty standard, but what El Mariachi offers, with one exception, was good.
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I have my personal tests for every Mexican restaurant: guacamole and carnitas. Both were on the menu at El Mariachi.
We might as well start with the bad. I've been to El Mariachi twice. Both times, I sampled a side of guacamole ($3). The first time, I thought it a bit green (unripe) but otherwise very nice. On the second trip, we had to remind our server that I had ordered a side of guacamole, so it came to the table late. It didn't taste at all like the guacamole I had a few days earlier. It was so salty, it tasted like someone dumped a whole box of salt in the vat. I think someone in the kitchen forgot or scrimped on the lemon juice. It didn't take long for the guacamole to oxidize and turn brown. Citrus juice would have slowed that process. So beware, there's an inconsistency with the guac.
The carnitas ($10.99), however, were lovely. The pork tips had been fried and were a bit dry, but otherwise were full of flavor. The plate was finished with the obligatory Mexican rice and refried beans, which I thought were standard, and a small guacamole salad. (Had I gotten the carnitas on my second visit, I could have used the guacamole to salt the pork.)
On the second trip, my one companion and I kind of threw caution to the wind. We ordered way more food than we should have. Of course, it started with warmed tortilla chips and salsa. El Mariachi's salsa is darker and spicier than most. I loved it. And, they bring what they call El Mariachi salsa, a white salsa — mayonnaise, ranch dressing and spices (lots of pepper). It was certainly a nice touch.
El Mariachi also has Dos Equis beer on tap. We ordered two large ones ($4.75). We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. I've had beer in beer gardens in Munich (the ultimate beer experience), so I thought I'd seen it all, but never have I seen steins the size of El Mariachi's. They were as large as pitchers. Neither one of us finished the beers (besides the size, there was a state trooper at the next table).
On the big trip, we sampled the choriqueso ($6.75), a chorizo and cheese dip. It was good enough to eat with a spoon, but anything with chorizo usually is.
We also tried the tamales ($2.75), which neither of us was thrilled with. The flat tamales were covered with so much ground pork and sauce they were almost hard to find. We also found a little shredded pork inside. They were pretty standard.
For entrees we sampled the Texas fajitas ($12.99). Generous amounts of shrimp, chicken and beef, along with onion, green pepper and spices were brought to the table sizzling on an iron plate. It sizzled for 15 minutes. Warm tortillas and pico de gallo, guacamole (the too salty batch) and sour cream were served on the side. Certainly, these fajitas were as good as you could get anywhere.
The chilies poblanos ($10.25) were a delight. Two huge poblano chilies (very mild and with the stems) had been stuffed with a white cheese — maybe Oaxaca, which is very much like mozzarella — dipped in a light batter and fried. The menu said one would be stuffed with cheese and chicken, but I found only cheese in both. Pulled or shredded chicken and sauce was used as a topping. Sans chicken, they'll be a favorite with vegetarians.
Desserts were delightful, as well. Flan ($3.50) is on every Latin-inspired menu from Asia to the New World. El Mariachi makes its flan, or baked custard, with evaporated milk, and it was rich, rich, rich.
Also on the menu was a dessert I'd never tried: xango ($4.75). I begged for an explanation. I was told it's a cheesecake-stuffed burrito. Well, bring it on. And, indeed, a large burrito had been stuffed with cream cheese and cinnamon filling. It was sinfully rich, and the light cinnamon flavor didn't hurt, either.
Dinner for two, including tax, but not tip, was $49 and change. Not too bad for a feast.