El Tapatio

South of Providence, south of the border
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  November 19, 2008

Once upon a time, Rhode Islanders would have been enormously grateful to have a Mexican restaurant like El Tapatio in our midst: good burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas, Cal-Mex/Tex-Mex style. Nowadays, when Mexican food has become almost as common as pizza, we tend to take such things for granted. But apparently the folks of Knightsville don't. With a 200-seat capacity, El Tapatio's first dining room was almost full by 7 on a Saturday night, and the second was starting to fill up.

El Tapatio | 401.944.2212 | 355 Atwood Ave, Cranston | Sun-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level accessible
The two large high-ceilinged rooms are separated by an impressive arched entryway, and the whole effect is of a Southwestern adobe ranchero, complete with traditional dress, both male and female, displayed high up on the peach-colored walls. Though there are half-a-dozen booths at one end of the room, even these table tops have colorful tiles imbedded in the edges.

The rest of the area is dominated by colorful Mexican chairs, both tall ones at the long bar and around a few tables, and regular ones at two-tops and four-tops. The backs of these large wooden chairs are carved and painted with calla lilies, sunflowers, toucans, saguaros, smiling suns, and beaming moons.

The scene made us smile, too, as we began to look at the extensive menu that included familiar suspects — tacos, quesadillas, chimichangas (like deep-fried burritos) — and less well-known items, such as grilled steak in a chicken mole sauce, grilled pork loin with guacamole, and shrimp sautûed with potato chunks and red peppers. There were even burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches for the less adventurous.

We began with a Tapatio sampler ($10.50), a huge platter of appetizers that included four "Diablo wings"; a small amount of nachos, with plenty of melted cheddar underneath and on top of the crisp tortilla chips, garnished with tomatoes and onions; four mini-quesadillas; four taquitos, deep-fried tightly rolled corn tortillas with chicken inside; and plenty of guacamole and sour cream. We chowed down on a bit of everything and realized we'd have to take most of our entrûe offerings home with us.

Bill zoomed in on a Mexican trio ($17.50), another large platter consisting of thin skirt steak charbroiled with some pink still in it; a thin-pounded and broiled chicken breast with a mild ranchero sauce; and two fat "Portuguese shrimp," wrapped with bacon, ham, and cheese in a cream sauce. These were served with a full complement of Spanish rice, pintos with queso fresco on top, and a salad garnished with pico de gallo and a large slice of avocado. Need I mention that he was overwhelmed with his choices? He was particularly impressed that the steak had kept its tenderness and rareness and was thereby very flavorful.

I perused the combos, in which you can choose one item, such as an enchilada, tamale, taco, chimichanga, burrito, or chile relleno, with rice and refried beans for $7.25 (the first three) or $9.25 (the second three). A "combo dos" allows you to choose two of those items, "combo tres" three of them. I guess the "combo" title refers to the beans and rice, although many of the specialty dishes are served with them anyway. Bill's beans, however, were definitely not "refried"— they were just cooked pinto beans.

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