Mexican With Love

El Sur is a food lover's dream: It's quaint and inexpensive with tasty eats

The joint was jumping when we walked into El Sur one recent Saturday night. The place is small, and there wasn't an empty table in the house. The servers were a blur as they raced by with plates of great-smelling, great-looking Mexican food. As soon as one table emptied, another party sat down. There was plenty of noisy, friendly chatter. It was obvious that most of the patrons were regulars.

In spite of the crowd, we didn't have a long wait for our table. As soon as we were seated, the pleasant young server dropped off a basket of chips and two different salsas, and then asked us if we wanted something to drink. We ordered two Mexican beers ($2.50), and because they had looked so tempting at other tables, we ordered a cheese crisp with cheese only ($3.50). The salsas were fresh, with one only slightly hotter than the other.

For entrées, John ordered a special, three tacos caseros (pan-fried tacos, $4.99), while I ordered a combo plate: a ground beef taco, a cheese enchilada and a beef tamale ($4.99). Both came with beans, rice and two extra tortillas. In a flash, the cold cervezas were at the table, followed by the cheese crisp.

You might think a cheese crisp is a cheese crisp is a cheese crisp, but in the case of El Sur's version, you'd be wrong. The medium-sized tortilla was crispy enough to stand up under the melted cheese, but there was still a slight chew to it. We discovered that the tortillas are handmade especially for El Sur by "someone," according to the person answering the phone.

Just as we finished the crisp, our entrées were brought to the table. One bite, and we knew why the place was so packed: This was Mexican food as it is meant to be--simple, full of real flavors and made with a lot of love.

John's tacos were a mix of ground beef and spices placed in a corn tortilla, with the whole deal then pan-fried. The juices from the meat gave the tortilla extra flavor and a crispness that cannot be matched. Topped off with a little lettuce, a sprinkle of white farmer cheese and a dab of the housemade salsa, these were the definition of what a taco should be.

The same could be said about each of the elements of my combo plate. The tamale was filled with plenty of tender shredded beef, and the masa was moist, having absorbed the slightly spicy red sauce. The sauce, tortilla and cheese in the enchilada were perfectly balanced. My taco had a crisp shell and the same spicy meat mixture in John's tacos. Had it been prepared casero style, it would have been even better.

We agreed that the beans and rice were tops. The beans were the perfect consistency, and the rice was mild and fluffy. And then came the real surprise: Our entire bill for all that fantastic food was less than $23, excluding tip!

A note on the atmosphere and décor: There are some who might find El Sur too noisy and hectic, and others who would consider the blue, sponge-painted walls with plaster fruit beneath them. Well, you'd be missing the point. The atmosphere and décor are as much a part of what makes El Sur a great place to dine, as is the food. If you don't get it, oh well; you'll be missing out on great food.

We went on a Thursday night for visit No. 2. The place was almost as crowded but not nearly as hectic, so we were able to talk with our server, who informed us that El Sur was closing the week between Christmas and New Year's. They will reopen on Jan. 3.

This time, we ordered margaritas ($3) and a cheese crisp with green chile, which came with guacamole and sour cream on the side ($4.50). For an entrée, John ordered a shredded beef chimichanga ($4) and a side of rice and beans ($1.25 each). I ordered the shrimp taquitos on soft corn tortillas ($8.95). They came with some more of those great beans and rice.

Again, the cheese crisp was delicious. The addition of sour cream and guacamole turned this into a meal. The guac was thick and chunky and had tons of shredded cheese stirred in--a nice addition.

John's good-sized chimi was filled was shredded roast beef and just a touch of ranchero sauce. The crunchy shell was the perfect complement to tender beef. The beans and rice were just as good, if not better, than on our first visit.

There were three small taquitos in my entrée. The warm, soft tortillas were each topped with a hefty mound of bite-sized grilled shrimp and some greens. The shrimp was tender, and there was so much on each taquito that they were hard to eat neatly.

The margaritas were OK, but next time, I'll stick with a beer.

I was totally full, but had to order the specialty of the house--flan ($3.50). The portion was small (who needs a big dessert after all that great food?), but this was seriously good. Strong tones of vanilla in both the flan and the sweet syrup made this one of the best I've ever tasted.

El Sur is a family-friendly restaurant: The prices are low; it's totally casual and down-home; the wait for food isn't long; and because of all the activity, the kids have plenty to look at to keep from getting bored and grumpy. Of course, that doesn't mean others should avoid the place. El Sur would be a great spot for a casual date or a before-the-movie dinner. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

El Sur reopens Jan 3. But be prepared for a wait: All those regulars are going to be waiting anxiously for El Sur to open its doors.

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