El Rodeo balances authenticity and hospitality Forty-four seconds. That’s the time elapsed from the moment we slide into a booth at El Rodeo to the time we are served a basket of warm, thin tortilla chips. If you wait more than un minuto, you’re at a Mexican restaurant that’s taking you for granted.

El Rodeo, on the other hand, is a well-established Speedway-area Mexican eatery that knows how to entice and comfort a gun-shy Hoosier gringo. The menu proclaims, in the tone of a public service announcement: “Not all Mexican food is hot. All of our dishes are meticulously prepared with an authentic yet mild flavor. For those who like it hot, we put a dish of hot sauce on the table.”

The warning worked. Teeming with all-blonde families, long-married old folks and race track operatives drinking 16-ounce margaritas, El Rodeo is a sprawling democracy, from the hand-painted wrap-around mural of Mexico complete with waterfall, to the big screen TV blaring a beisbol game.

But the salsa, perhaps, was too democratic — lacking in tomato chunks, fresh herbs and any real heat, there in its plastic Aztec-styled bowl. Wimps, we decided, may be ruining the salsa bell curve. A little sad, we progressed to the entrees. The husband picked a combo. A statistician could tell you how many combinations of tacos, enchiladas, chalupas, rice-and-beans, tostadas, burritos, chile rellenos and tamales are mathematically possible. El Rodeo offers 30 combos, none more than $6.99. The tamale was a standout, with an especially thick and earthy corn crust encasing ground beef with that rust-colored gravy sauce.

On the encyclopedic El Rodeo menu, little steer skull icons indicate Chef’s Specials. Dad picked the Acapulco ($7.99), a heap of spice-rubbed, tender beef under a thin veil of melted cheese, served with deftly-grilled onions and rice. The menu said that the dish also came with salad, and my Italian dad shouldn’t have been surprised that most Mexican restaurants define salad as a mound of pale shredded iceberg dolloped with sour cream, pico de gallo and guacamole. Our server Roger was an angel and brought a fresh plate of plain lettuce after Dad rebuffed the guacamole. No gringo request is too silly at El Rodeo, nor any party too big or hungry. To wit, we witnessed another waiter bearing a total of seven plates on robust forearms.

These same waiters probably endure first degree burns so that we can enjoy the sizzling drama of fajitas. My Fajitas de Camarón ($12.75), another Chef’s Special, was rife with shrimp — no skimping here — and grilled tomatoes, bell peppers and well-carmelized onion chunks. More veggies might have been nice, perhaps some mushrooms, but these fajitas are rustic, bountiful and deftly grilled.

El Rodeo does offer Vegetarian Fajitas ($8.25) with added carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. But judging by the Chef’s Specials, El Rodeo is all about carnivorousness. Fajitas El Rodeo ($9.99) is an intimidating mix of four different meats: beef, chicken, pork and chorizo sausage. The Super Rodeo has steak, chicken and shrimp, and, at $14.99, is one of the priciest menu items. In keeping with its everyman sensibility, El Rodeo is a great place to stretch your dime. Most lunches are around $5, none more than $6.75. The à la carte menu is a boon for students (or down-on-their-luck Indy 500 drivers). For $2, a chicken enchilada can be yours.

Desserts at Mexican restaurants are often left to languish while people pop yet another tortilla chip. This time we made sure to take a tour of sweet endings, El Rodeo-style. The Fried Ice Cream ($2.99) made a glamorous presentation, with aerosol can whipped cream and chocolate syrup drizzles heaped upon a fluted pastry bowl — but Joe felt cheated that the ice cream wasn’t actually fried, just plopped into the fried pastry bowl. Dad’s sopapillas got higher marks ($2.25): super crisp elephant ears kissed with honey and butter. My dark gold flan, the traditional Mexican custard ($2.25), looked wan, but tasted rightly rich, with a tinge of alcohol. Speaking of alcohol, El Rodeo offers a full contingent, from Grey Goose to Wild Turkey, plus 16 beer selections.

As I stood in line to pay the bill, an older but perky couple hollered good-bye to Roger. “He’s our favorite server,” the woman said. “We request him whenever we come. Once we saw him eating with his family on his day off. He’s got kids to take care of. We tip him as much as we can.” I could tell Roger was a pro. And that El Rodeo is more Hoosier than Ryan’s Steakhouse, and still plenty Mexican.

El Rodeo 2606 N. High School Road 328-7953 Monday– Saturday, 11-10:30 Sunday, 11:30-9:30 Food: 3 1/2 stars Atmosphere: 3 1/2 stars Service: 5 stars

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