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Fancy eating is great sometimes, and we've certainly never hesitated to fill ourselves with plates of rich, exotic food at white tablecloth joints where the waiters will sneak in like ghosts to fold up your napkin every time you step away from the table. But we're simple folks at heart, and that means that we're also right at home at more casual restaurants —even the occasional chain place.
Which brings us to Santo Coyote, which might be one of the best options around for consistent, inexpensive chain dining. The menu is pretty much exactly what regular eaters of Americanized Mexican should expect, and we feel like there's nothing at all wrong with that if the food tastes good. After several trips out to the West Little Rock location, we've had enough tasty things to endorse what Santo Coyote is cooking up.
Eating at a place like Santo Coyote means starting off with an order of cheese dip ($3.95 small/$7.99 large), and this version of the Arkansas favorite is velvet smooth with just the right hint of salt and spice. A small order is easily enough for two people to share, but we admit that we've bought the large to split on nights when drowning our sorrows in queso was the only solution. And, of course, the only thing better than cheese dip is cheese dip with chorizo in it, so for an extra indulgent way to get rid of the complimentary basket of chips, there isn't anything much better than the Chori-Queso ($8.95). Cheese dip not your thing? Get an order of guacamole ($7.95), which we have found to be fresh every time we've ordered it.
On nights when we want a light meal, we like to follow up our queso with an order of Sopa Azteca ($4.99), a tasty chicken soup served with pico de gallo, fresh avocado and tortilla strips. This soup is hearty without being heavy, full of the deep rich flavor of chicken and stock, but kept light with the addition of the fresh tomatoes and avocado. That fresh taste is something not seen in many soups, so we return to this one time and time again for that unique twist.
When it comes to the main event, choosing is often hard for us. On nights where we arrive with a heartier-than-normal appetite, we get the Chimi Rica ($10.75) with chicken, and the huge fried burrito is generally large enough that we carry some home. The crisp golden shell is never overcooked, and unlike some chimis we've eaten that have a large pocket of air inside, this big boy is stuffed full with spicy shredded chicken, making it one of the best bang-for-your-buck dishes on the menu.
Of course, not everyone likes to have their food deep fried, in which case one of Santo Coyote's regular burrito options may be preferable. Our favorite is the Supremo ($9.95), which, as the name implies, is a pile of food that includes beef or shredded chicken wrapped in a flour tortilla, then topped with lettuce, tomato and crema fresca. There are some tasty black beans and rice on the side, but, given the size of the burrito, we've never managed to do more than take a few complimentary bites.
Tamales are another favorite, especially since they are part of a "pick two" combination menu for $9. That ability to get two is a plus here, because it allows us to get one pork tamale in red sauce and a chicken tamale with salsa verde. Each style is moist without being mushy, and the tangy sauces soak into the masa quite well. The pork has a bit more flavor to it than the chicken, but we don't blame Santo Coyote — it's hard to beat classic pork for tamales.
The part of the menu where we really indulge ourselves is labeled with two favorite words: Sopes and Tacos ($2.99 each) The first few times we tried the place, we stuck with tacos, and were very pleased with the tender texture and grilled beef flavor of the al carbon, the citrus tang of the al pastor and the smoky flavor of the char-grilled chicken. These tacos are relatively authentic, served in corn tortillas with onions and cilantro, ready for a healthy squeeze of lime to bring everything together into perfection. Fans of ground beef crunchy-style tacos will find them here, too, and although we thought they were just fine, the more authentic offerings are so well done that we rarely order them.
At some point, we decided to branch out to the sopes, and we've been there ever since. The sope is a little bit of everything — it has a masa shell like a tamale, only flattened and fried, and it's topped like a taco, but there are also refried beans. They are nearly impossible to eat with your hands (which is how we do it at the taco trucks), but having a knife and fork handy means the ability to put down a number of these in short order.
The sopes come with the same selection of meats as the tacos, with our personal favorite being chorizo. Chorizo works with a sope better than a regular taco simply because the thicker masa shell soaks up all that lovely grease and spice that sweats off the sausage. Of course, given that the taco and sope menu is set up for a la carte ordering, it's easy (and recommended) to mix and match different meat combinations and just throw yourself a sope party every time you head in.
Santo Coyote is the sort of place we head to after a hard day of work because it's quick, it's affordable and there's never any hassle about getting good food, no matter what we order. It's easy to make a meal at Santo Coyote go as cheap or as expensive as you want — there are delicious food items at every price point on the menu. So, while it isn't fancy fine dining, we're fans of the place, and as far as chain Mexican joints go, it gets the vote of our pocketbooks nearly every time.
11610 Pleasant Ridge Road
Pleasant Ridge Town Center
2513 McCain Blvd.
Like a growing number of restaurants in Central Arkansas, Santo Coyote works with the Chef Shuttle delivery service. Whether it's an office lunch or a laid-back dinner at home, this pairing will do you right for Mexican cuisine that is inexpensive, arrives hot and tastes delicious.
11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar. All credit cards accepted.