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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Quit passing by El Palenque

Posted By on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 at 10:12 AM

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Any Little Rock Mexican food enthusiast worth his/her salt already knows that some of the finest south-of-the-border cuisine is readily found south-of-the-630. Southwest Little Rock is a beloved section of town that any resident anxious to explore the more authentic (and notably more affordable) side of Mexican cuisine will wisely visit often. There’s certainly establishments all over town that cater to the see-and-be-seen crowd, and there’s surely nothing wrong with wanting to slurp down cerviche and drown oneself in margaritas while wearing 6-inch stilettos or your J. Crew herringbone Italian linen sport coat. Hey, I like J. Crew, I also happen to like greasy $1.25 carne asada tacos that drip meat juice and salsa verde down the front of your shirt, but sometimes the two seem to be at odds with each other. Finding a truly “authentic” Mexican experience (however trite the term may be) in some neighborhoods around Little Rock can be a rather difficult feat.

I’ve driven down the strip of Rodney Parham Rd housing Taqueria El Palenque dozens of times without even noticing it existed. But its placement within this small shopping complex—more likely made famous by Layla’s—does not exactly allow the small Mexican restaurant to jump out at travelers zipping by on the nearby busy street. But I was fortunate to find it, and was even more fortunate to sample some of their exemplary food.

Spinach and mushroom quesadilla
  • Spinach and mushroom quesadilla
Perusing through El Palenque's menu, it did not take long to determine what I'd be ordering. Being on a burrito hunt (and having heard good things about El Palenque's version), I was immediately drawn to the prospects of a plump, weighty, al pastor burrito. Ordering this was a wise decision, as it was certainly one of the better iterations of I've found around Little Rock. The components are nothing unexpected, but each part works together to elevate the whole. The soft flour tortilla was tender and chewy, but sturdy enough to support its insides. Most notably, the pork and the Spanish rice were exceptionally good. Most often, I've found the rice to be a low point if not properly prepared. This rice was a bright, sassy orange, well seasoned and rich with tomato and onion. The marinated pork was a wonderful addition as well—juicy and tender, spiced with ancho chile and adobo seasoning. This spicy meat was suitably complemented by some of the cooling elements within: white cheese, sour cream, freshly shredded lettuce, and chopped tomato. Here was a burrito that could hold its own in any part of the country, proving the Little Rock is no stranger to quality Mexican fare.

Next, I was enticed by the spinach and mushroom quesadilla. Here you'll find a vegetarian dish that leaves no one yearning for the inclusion of protein—it's perfectly flavored as it is. This quesadilla was not the typical flattened, thin version you may be used to. Instead, El Palenque's take on the classic quesadilla finds a large flour tortilla rolled and stuffed full, then sliced on the bias. This creates several handheld pieces of bulging quesadilla, perfect for dipping in either of their two house-made salsas. It was engorged with creamy white, melted cheese, whose bold saltiness was at the forefront of the quesadilla's flavor. Caramelized, slightly sweet bell pepper, sautéed spinach, and mushrooms rounded out this magnificent dish. I don't always order quesadillas—most often leaning towards the standard tacos and burritos—but I'll likely be eating them a bit more often, as I found this order exceptionally rewarding.

For a part of town not particularly well-known for stand-out Mexican cuisine, El Palenque is a real peach, and I'm lucky to have found it. It's likely this place hasn't received the attention it deserves given its rather inconspicuous location, but it's high time the world know about what El Palenque is proffering. Southwest Little Rock may still be the epicenter of fine Mexican cuisine, but this humble establishment can keep up with anything you'd find in that part of town.

(Taqueria El Palenque is located at 9501 N Rodney Parham Rd, Little Rock)

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