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Pigs in Heaven 

Carnitas at El Palenque are other-worldly

Third time's the charm. Or maybe it's the fourth or fifth time. I guess it depends on who is doing the counting. And why.

There used to be a Chi-Chi's on Academy, just south of Maizeland. Since it closed, a number of Mexican restaurants have tried the spot on for size. I think the longest-running was the Santa Fe Grille. But there's a new game going now, and I hope this one sticks around for a while.

One of the first things you might notice about El Palenque (The Hitching Post) is that the windows are still etched with the Santa Fe Grille logo. Once you get inside, you won't care what's on the window. It's a cool, inviting interior, all earth tones with clay-red table tops and terracotta and green tiles around the archways. The service is sublime, and I don't say that very often about anyone. All the staff that we encountered was helpful, knowledgeable and made us feel very, very welcome. It was like sitting on a patio in the shade of early evening when the first cool breeze blows in.

Soon after we were seated, we got baskets of warm chips with brimming bowls of salsa, which, due to the unpredictability of chilis, varied in intensity on different visits. But whether it waltzed or tangoed across the tongue, it was delicious. The salsa here is quite smooth, with a fresh flavor of tomatoes, bits of fresh cilantro and finely minced onions. Even when the heat index is up, it's hard to resist, as my three-year-old attested when she exclaimed, "My tongue is hot," while scooping up another chipful.

Small combinations. Large combinations. Burritos, tamales, enchiladas, rellenos. You know how the story goes. But here's what you don't know: At El Palenque, both the chicken and the shredded beef used to fill enchiladas or burritos are extremely moist, tender and full of flavor. The chicken, all white meat, was especially wonderful, flecked with chilis, not a bit dry. The beef was full-flavored and not stringy. I should note, however, that you get ground beef unless you request shredded, which is an additional 50 to $1 charge.

I'm the first to admit I'm no tamale expert. But I know what tastes good, and these are marvelous, served resting on their cornhusk wrapping, tender masa (not soggy) wrapped around the luscious filling. Many of the meals come with your choice of red or green chili, and I'd be hard pressed to recommend one over the other. The red has that lovely, earthy flavor typical of red chili, but is smoother and more full-bodied than most without being too hot. The green is tangy, mild and packed with flavor, too.

Menudo and carnitas are served only on the weekend, so plan your trips here accordingly. The menudo is very rich, more meaty and with a more predominant tripe flavor than others I've sampled. Every bowl comes with fresh cilantro, chopped onions, jalapeos, juicy wedges of lime and oregano, so you can season it to your liking. And the carnitas! If pigs believed in reincarnation, they would all want to become carnitas at El Palenque. Large chunks of juicy, falling-apart tender pork are covered with soft rings of onion and a special sauce that I wanted to lick off the plate.

Most of the meals come with rice and beans. The rice is perfectly fine, but the beans were surprisingly light and fresh tasting, not heavy at all. The guacamole was a bit disappointing in that it was a bit bland. But I'll keep going back. For one thing, I haven't gotten to sample the seafood side of the menu yet. I like the sound of fish fajitas, cooked in butter with green peppers and onions, or the Camerones el Palenque, jumbo shrimp stuffed with Monterey cheese, wrapped in bacon and covered with a spicy Ranchero sauce. And on my last visit, I realized that breakfast items are served all day, including heuvos served Rancheros, a la Mexicana (with diced jalapeos), con Chorizo, mixed with that marvelous shredded beef, or in Chilaquiles.

The final outstanding feature of El Palenque is the pricing. Small combinations are $7.25 to $7.75, and the large combinations are $8.50 to $8.75 for more food than most people can eat. You can even get liver and onions, with warm tortillas, for $7.50, and the real bargains are $7.50 for menudo and $8.50 for the carnitas. The most expensive steak is $10.75 for a T-bone. The seafood items run a bit more, from $9.00 for fish tacos to $16.00 for Camarones Abogados, 12 large shrimp peeled and cooked in lemon juice, with onions and fresh jalapeo slices. Kids can get a plate full of rice, beans and a taco, tostada, enchilada, burrito or quesadilla for $2.75, and both of mine had enough to bring leftovers home for lunch the next day. (Who knew that five- and three-year-olds would enjoy cold rice and beans for breakfast?)

I salute the familia Gutierrez, proprietors of El Palenque, and wish them a long and prosperous tenure in their new location.

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