El Arriero

I passed this restaurant countless times over the past several years. Because it was located in a faceless row among assorted strip mall tenants, I assumed it was simply soldiering on, making a go with a small operation and few customers. How wrong I was.

The space is very large, brightly decorated, and humming with customers who pour through the door and are whisked to tables by a hard-working staff. My first visit was lunch on a Friday afternoon.

The second was for family-takeout on a Tuesday early evening. The place was jammed. Further, when I began mentioning El Arriero (the mule-driver) to friends, all of them declared it a long-time favorite. Gee whiz, was I out of it or what?

The Mexican foods presented to North Americans differ significantly from what our southern neighbors usually eat. For one thing, Mexican restaurant cuisine tends to be light and served in courses.

Here, we have become accustomed to three or more distinct foods on a single plate, often merged under the auspices of a tomato sauce and/or cheese.

El Arriero promotes the food of Jalisco, the state which is home to Guadalajara and the center of tequila distilling.

It draws heavily on that state's tradition of seafood and my dinner of Camarones Chipotle (prawns in smoked chili sauce) was pleasant at $12.50. There are some 23 dishes which feature shrimp, fish, and crab and these cost from $12 to $20 with most in the $13 range.

Ceviche ($11) and oysters ($7) are found on the appetizer menu and it would be nice to see a fish soup (caldo de pescado) along with the Sopa de Tortilla, Caldo de Pollo, and Albondigas already on the soups menu, bowls of which go for $7.50 to $6.25.

The list of 12 "Jalisco Specials" is heavy on beef variations and all come with rice, beans, and tortillas.

Their prices are from $11 to $13. There are, of course, salads, tostadas, burritos and enchiladas either singly or in combo plates, which come in small ($8.25) sizes or large $9.25.

My lunch tostada ($5.75) of shredded beef was very tasty and the accompanying sauce was honest, boasting medium heat.

The daughter's Ground Beef Burrito ($6) pleased her but the marinated pork in the wife's Taco al Pastor was tough and dry.

I had also ventured a tamale for $3 because a tasty "tamal" often bodes well for the lover of Mexican food. Mine was entirely credible but no more than middling up against others available in our region.

Imported Mexican bottled beers cost $3.50 and American industrial malt beverages $2.75. Cocktails are around $4 and margaritas run $6.25. The waitress, from Jalisco, assured me that El Arriero will do traditional margaritas as well as the "brain-freeze" variety.

Obviously this is a place to check out if you are fan of Mexican food served northern-style. There's another branch on Ashland Street in Ashland. Those throngs of happy diners are all the proof you'll need.

— Hubert Smith

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