Have pity for our Central Arkansas Mexican restaurants: there are simply so many around that it's hard to differentiate one from another — sort of like a game of "Where's Waldo" with a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa. It's this very reason that caused me to bypass Patron Mexican Grill in Benton for nearly every one of the four years I've spent in Saline County, heading to the restaurant during my last week before moving only because all my cookware was packed away in boxes. Patron doesn't do much to stand out in terms of its exterior or decor, but don't let the almost-anonymous outside fool you: there is some serious spicy cooking going on inside. Couple this with service that is friendly and efficient and one of "dry" Saline County's best cocktail lists, and suddenly Patron is worth a lot more notice than I ever gave the place.
Starting the meal is pretty standard: head to a table, order a drink, and enjoy your complimentary chips and salsa. The salsa is thin, but very fresh tasting, with obvious diced peppers and cilantro that serve to give it a nice flavor. I won't go quite as far as saying that I've paid for salsa that wasn't as good as this, but it was definitely one of the stronger contenders for "best free salsa" in the area. The menu ranges from standards like tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, but includes several different styles of fajitas and an even stranger squash enchilada that is sure to catch the eye of any visiting vegetarian tired of only having rice and beans as an option.
Throwing authenticity to the wind, we started with the Chicken Chimichanga, and Patron's version of the Tex-Mex classic came out fried to a golden crisp and covered with a velvety cheese sauce. The chimichanga was stuffed with marinated chicken, and the rich, spicy flavor of that tender chicken was the first thing that raised our respect for Patron. Subtle spices mingled with peppers and onions gave the chicken a wonderful flavor, and the crisp-fried flour shell was substantial enough to stand up to both the moist protein inside and the ample cheese sauce outside. The result was bite after bite of excellent shredded chicken made even better by the fresh guacamole and pico de gallo served to the side.
The greatest discovery of the meal, though, was the Pork Verde, a massive portion of grilled pork chunks swimming in a tangy tomatillo salsa that was bursting with hot, fresh flavor. For the perfect pork in green sauce, the pork must first be grilled to create a good, seared flavor and color, then braised in salsa until the meat is tender. Patron succeeds with both aspects of their version, with the smoky pork providing a deep foundation for the light, slightly sour sauce. Too many times I've had this dish where the pork is chewy and full of gristle and the sauce just a bland after-thought; Patron's pork was lean and tender with a sauce that was spicy and good.
If there's anything I should have learned after a few years in this business of discussing food, it's that just like a book shouldn't be judged by its cover, neither should a restaurant be judged by its exterior. Patron seems a little anonymous at first glance, tucked away off a service road near Home Depot, and while the menu isn't anything that will shock or surprise the average diner, it's the execution of these staples of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine that make the place worth a visit. It's obvious that the cooks at Patron know their way around melding ingredients such as tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and cilantro into sauces and marinades that complement and accentuate their various offered meats in a way that seems to escape all too many Mexican joints. In addition, the place knows its way around the grill as well, and the smoky flavor of each meat is paired perfectly with the excellent sauces. It was a surprising meal for me, mostly because I'd driven right past the place for years and not given it a second thought: that was a mistake on my part. Patron isn't high-end fare, and it lacks the gritty authenticity of a taco wagon, but good food is good food, and Patron is serving it up daily.
Patron Mexican Grill is located at 17324 Interstate 30, in the same shopping center as the Tinseltown Theater, and they are open for lunch and dinner daily.
The Root Cafe will be hosting what they promise is their first-annual hot pepper eating contest at the restaurant during the Arkansas Local Food Network's South Main food tour on Sunday, Oct. 14. Torture time starts at 4 p.m., with contestants chowing down on a host of hot varieties, from "that's spicy!" to "My God, why have you forsaken me?" including Jalapeno, Cayenne, Serrano, Seven Pot, Maga Ghost, Giant Ghost, the dreaded Trinidad Scorpion. The survivor who comes out on top will receive a $50 cash prize, with prizes for bronze and silver as well.
Those who want to compete can sign up at the Root Cafe, by calling (501) 414-0423, or by emailing email@example.com.
The sauce is available in two different varieties: a green version made from unripe (but still hot) peppers, and a red version made from the fully ripe habaneros. While both versions of the sauce had my mouth burning, there's still an impressive amount of flavor in these sauces to accompany the heat. The red version was my favorite, and after the initial blast of heat faded from my tongue I could really taste the sweet, almost fruity flavor that the habanero is so famous for. The green was a touch more sour, with a tangy flavor and thicker consistency than the sweeter red. Both sauces make for the perfect addition to anything from pizza to purple hulls to a great way to kick up a fresh salsa or homemade barbecue sauce. According to the monks at Subiaco, the secret to making a good sauce is a simple one: use lots and lots of peppers, and from the sweat on my brow and the smile on my face, I have to say that they seem to have gotten it right.
Monk Sauce is available directly from the Subiaco Abbey on-line store (where you can also purchase some of their famous peanut brittle), or locally at Eggshells Kitchen Company on Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights. If anything, picking up a bottle or two of this searing sauce might make these record-breaking summer days somewhat cooler by comparison.
Want to talk about neat, though — that's the whole story behind The Savory Pantry and the restaurant that came before it, The Pancake Shop. Read more about both ventures over at Tie Dye Travels.
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What you might not know is where Cavender's is from... or how widespread is its influence. Hop on over to Tie Dye Travels to find out how I got the story.
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