My husband and I have traveled the world over many times and lived in many different countries as well as various US states, we're hard-core "foodies" who have dined in some of the finest (and worst!) restaurants on the planet, and I would just like to say that the lunch we had today at El Chico in Mountain Home, Arkansas was truly outstanding.
We've unfortunately had some very bad luck with restaurants all over both Baxter and Marion Counties, and eventually learned what most of the locals know: if you want to eat wonderful food it's better to take the time to prepare them yourself at home then risk putting something unsavory and generally tasteless into your mouth from a restaurant around here that costs twice as much as it would to make it at home. Yet we needed to go to Home Depot around lunch time and after picking up some essential building supplies, we were pretty hungry. The closest place to eat: El Chico Cafe, just across the parking lot from Home Depot.
We'd passed it dozens of times since moving to this area 18 months ago, and habitually avoided it under the assumption that it would be just as bad as a few other Mexican restaurants that we've tried locally. But today we were desperately hungry after falling down on time management (hey, we really needed rebar ASAP to complete a project before sunset) and therefore cautiously ventured into El Chico. Right away it was a pleasant surprise with the very professional decor, clean carpets, large flatscreen TVs in the bar area set to close-captioning so not to interrupt conversations, a friendly hostess who asked if we'd like a table or a booth by the window, so after running around Home Depot it was very nice.
Then upon hearing that we'd never been to El Chico before, our server James politely claimed that they make all of their recipes from scratch and suggested that we try their guacamole, which he would prepare for us tableside. The guacamole photo on the menu did look delicious, but we opted for a Cabo shrimp cocktail shooter instead... to be followed with a sampler of five different styles of enchiladas and an order of beef skirt steak fajitas.
Now, the first test for any Mexican cafe always starts with the chips and especially the salsa. The salsa was somewhat mild (personally I like it a lot hotter but heat can always be adjusted to accommodate personal preferences) and tasted very fresh indeed, that salsa certainly didn't come out of a can. There are many versions of tortilla chips, these were thin and clearly fried, but also crisp plus not overly salted or greasy.
The Cabo shrimp cocktail shooter then arrived first and it was simply awesome! Unlike most establishments that try to get away with mixing catsup and horseradish for their cocktail sauce, somebody inside the El Chico kitchen had really gone the distance by flavoring their sauce with the perfect amount of fresh cilantro and chopped onion to merely compliment the plump cold shrimp. Cilantro can be pretty powerful stuff (my husband generally avoids it while I love it), while it ended up being no more than a tasty accent to the shrimp cocktail today, subtle and very good. The only fix to the very positive Cabo shrimp shooter experience could have been an optional order of minced Jalapeno peppers on the side, which I didn't think of at the time (my husband doesn't like things as hot as I do so El Chico was right in not increasing the heat in their base recipe, it was strictly my bad for not asking for Jalapenos to adjust an otherwise perfect appetizer to my own personal tastes).
Our plates arrived before we were even finished discussing the shrimp cocktail, great timing since it's never good to wait forever between an appetizer and the main course. It was great to see that every one of the enchiladas on my plate was sitting up straight and fluffy in the row between the rice and refried beans, no flat "road-kill" deflated enchiladas with overbaked tortillas that automatically turn to mush in a sea of nasty canned cheese sauce as so common in most Mexican restaurants in America.
Now, I'll admit that I initially was skeptical about the idea of having baked guacamole on my enchilada sampler plate. In my mind, avocados should never be heated or cooked, they should only be served cold in salads or dip or just by themselves. But, the guacamole enchilada sample really worked for me! Bright fresh avocado flavor with slightly lemony notes, excellently seasoned without being overpowering, and as it turns out serving it hot instead of cold didn't mean mushy or discolored at all.
There were a lot of flavor contrasts on my plate that I thought would probably clash, but that didn't happen after all. The spicy beef stood on it's own, while the chicken enchilada next door proved to have very tender chicken breast chunks inside without any gristle. I'm not sure exactly what the other two enchilada samples were and they seem to share the same mole-style sauce, but at that point I didn't care about the details since it was all really delicious.
Finally, my husband Gordon handed over a forkful of his steak fajita. The skirt steak was tender and a bit smokey in a nice way, and although apparently grilled one would think it came off a wood-chip barbeque somewhere outside.
BOTTOM LINE: this was the very best restaurant meal we've had in our 18 months of living here in Arkansas, we've missed having very fine foods in restaurants since our arrival but were extremely impressed with El Chico! The service, food, cleanliness, and overall ambiance were very well worth every penny, and the next time that we need some re-bar, nuts, bolts, and assorted building from Home Depot we'll certainly be glad to make the dreaded trek "all the way over there" with a lot more enthusiasm - since next time, we'll have another lunch at the El Chico Cafe to really look forward to!
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