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Mexican cuisine that will drive you crazy

click to enlarge It's hard to get a bad meal at El Mariachi Loco. - SUNNIE SACKS
  • Sunnie Sacks
  • It's hard to get a bad meal at El Mariachi Loco.

I was sad when El Nopal closed. It was an extremely cozy little restaurant with a relaxed and welcoming ambiance that made you feel as though you were dining in someone's home. During warm weather you could sit on the gorgeous outdoor patio, surrounded by adobe and wrought iron, and forget that you were in the middle of Colorado Springs.

But as the chapter on El Nopal comes to a close, the chapter on El Mariachi Loco is just beginning. The space looks and feels the same -- warm and inviting -- but I think the food is even better. There's a load of attention being paid to the little details here, and I've never seen another restaurant that gave me free chips and salsa with my take-out order. While the chips are nothing special, the salsa is a delightful pico de gallo loaded with chunks of fresh tomato, onion and cilantro, sparked with tiny bits of chopped jalapeno. And if you're in the mood for a heart-stopping appetizer, try the Chori Queso Loco. Spicy, bold chorizo is cooked and crumbled, then topped with ooey, gooey melted cheese. It's served with warm tortillas, so you might want to ask for extra chips to go with it. We fought over the last bite, because it's so simple, and yet so divine.

I think it would be hard to get a bad meal here. I would rate almost everything I've sampled as wonderful, superb or maybe even glorious. The Grande Burritos ($5; $6.25 with rice and beans) are truly grande, and the Pollo Con Mole makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Tender shredded chicken is combined with an earthy provocative, spicy mole sauce with just a slight sweetness about it, then the burrito itself is topped with more of this sumptuous sauce. This is a sauce that could drive you insane trying to re-create the subtle complexities, so I'll just get mine here, thank you very much.

The combination plate ($7.95) I tried yielded mixed results. The chili relleno was good, using a poblano chili instead of the more familiar Anaheim, which gave the dish more character and texture. The chicken enchilada was good, and it came covered in a nippy red chili sauce that was subtle and smooth. The tamale was the only disappointment, and while the masa was light and fluffy, not soggy at all, the filling had apparently fallen out somewhere along the way, because there were only a few tasty shreds clinging to one side of the tamale. The posole ($6.25) on the other hand, more than made up for the tamale. A rich, chili-infused broth full of slow-cooked pork and hominy, this huge bowlful was a perfect foil for a chilly fall evening.

Even the simple tostada ($2.50) was a delight. A crispy, freshly fried corn tortilla was lightly spread with refried beans, topped with tender strips of marinated beef, then sprinkled with lettuce, onion, tomato and cheese. Personally, I find this deft hand with tostadas preferable to the restaurants where you can't even find the tortilla under the half a head of iceberg lettuce. If you're in the mood for a sandwich, and you are very hungry or are sharing with a friend, try a torta ($6.50). I wasn't paying attention to what I was ordering, so imagine my surprise when I unwrapped the foil to find a large loaf of warm bread. Then the smell reached my nose, and I swooned with delight, wondering if I could hide the entire thing from my husband and eat it all myself. I had chosen the Carnitas Torta, and instead of the hard, chewy bits of pork that some people try to pass off as carnitas, these were huge chunks of succulent, meltingly tender marinated pork, dressed simply with a little mayo, some lettuce and sliced tomato. I'm anxious to go back and try the Carnitas Plate for dinner sometime, when I won't have to share.

The Pollo en Salsa Verde ($7.50) is described as chicken in a pleasantly sharp green tomato sauce. That's like saying the "Mona Lisa" is a nice picture of an Italian woman. Tender shredded chicken is combined with a piquant, lively tomatillo sauce that will tempt you into licking your plate to get the last drops. I actually was wishing for biscuits, because the tortillas just weren't absorbent enough to hold every single drop of that maddeningly addictive green sauce. I could eat this dish every day, on biscuits, on toast, on eggs, on rice or on anything that will hold still long enough to be consumed.

I've barely scratched the surface at El Mariachi Loco, and I can't wait to go back. They've got menudo, steaks, tacos stuffed with pork adovado and red salsa, fajitas, some mole dishes with pork, seafood, desserts and a variety of Mexican beverages (of the soft variety). To find this little heaven, go south on Circle from Platte. Drive slowly, because once you pass Conway's Red Top, you'll want to look for Platte Place on the west side of the street. Once you're on Platte Place, drive past the auto dealers and the mechanics, and you'll see El Mariachi Loco on the right. You'll walk in hungry and walk out happy.

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