Review: El Tapatio

Transported to the border
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 3, 2012

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SIMPLICITY The dining room at El Tapatio.
Although El Tapatio is a full-fledged Mexican restaurant, with distinct Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex accents, it has certainly adapted to one Rhode Island tradition: bountiful portions.

We had been to El Tapatio's Cranston location, so we arrived with smiles and pleasant expectations. When we sat down, the gratis bowl of corn chips was not only humongous, big enough for four to share without any hands being slapped, but with two — count them: two — bowls of salsa. (Don't get me going about Mexican restaurants that charge a lot for the simple item.)

The colorful interior doesn't overdo it with thematic décor, but serapes are part of each window treatment of dangling swags. Where we sat, part of a collection of dolls in native dress was displayed and an end wall was painted floor to ceiling with a beach scene, complete with parrots and exotic botany. We took in the atmosphere along with our corn chips, to which we had added a cup of chile con queso ($4.50), a rich cheese dip fortified with bits of jalapeno.

More than two dozen beers are served, plus a variety of margaritas, although the house version ($7.50) is perfectly fine, as in perfectly strong. They bill themselves as a family restaurant, so there are a few kids' items. The list is gringo-kid-friendly, in that only half of the choices are Mexican — the others are chicken tenders, grilled cheese, and a cheeseburger — and fries can be substituted for the rice and beans on the $5.25 plates.

On our previous visit we had started with the Tapatio sampler ($11.25) and had been impressed with the bounty, enough for four to have a mini-quesadilla, a taquito, diablo wings, and some nachos. This time we wanted to start with soup. Johnnie had the black bean soup ($5.75), which oddly was listed only under the half-dozen vegetarian items. She hadn't wanted anything spicy hot but this was too plain vanilla for her, with no touches of cumin or coriander.

There was tortilla chicken soup ($7.50) and a seafood soup containing everything from crab legs to catfish, presumably meal-sized for its $18. But I was attracted to the sopa de Albondigas ($7.50). The menu description is "fresh minted pork, beef meatballs" amid vegetables in a clear broth, which reads to me like separate pieces of pork interestingly marinated. No, just and beef pork meatballs. I quickly adjusted my expectations, because it was delicious. A small potato, a length of carrot, and large piece of zucchini were there for my division into bite-size pieces. The three meatballs were delicious and the broth was scrumptious, beaded with chili oil. I highly recommend this one.

When Johnnie ordered the arroz con pollo ($13.95), I was wary but said nothing. But it was not like the simpler Puerto Rican version at all but rather a more complex dish of chicken breast pieces with mushrooms, onions, and peppers and a tasty but not spicy-hot red sauce. It is described as being served over rice, but fortunately the rice was separate and topped with melted cheese, a much more appealing presentation. There was also some shredded lettuce topped with a dollop of sour cream. Nice.

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