Like pizza and burgers before them, tacos have become trendy, the latest example of a low-end food item gone fancy. And while we're not against that sort of thing, it remains somewhat puzzling since the humble taco is pretty perfect in its most authentic form: protein, onions, and cilantro wrapped in a grilled corn tortilla and finished with a squeeze of lime. Lucky for us, Southwest Little Rock has become something of a taco wonderland, with multiple trucks, taquerias and tiendas serving up a variety of cheap, excellent tacos. One of the newest entrants into the territory is Eliella, a small but well-stocked taqueria on Baseline that by turns pleased and perplexed us with its food.
Ordering tacos at Eliella is a cinch — everything is a la carte and the list of meats is extensive. Familiar items like carne asada, pork, and chicken share space with more exotic items like lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (steamed beef head), and tripa (bits of beef intestine). At $1.50-$1.75 each, we decided to order up several different versions, and soon enough had a massive platter of tacos before us. A quick trip to the condiment bar netted us fresh chopped cilantro, diced onions, limes and several types of salsa. This condiment bar is a fantastic and unique feature to Eliella, made only better by the freshness of the ingredients and the excellent flavor of the salsas. Having doctored up our tacos just the way we like them, we began to feast.
First up was a chicken taco, which turned out to be the only taco that disappointed us with its dry meat and lack of spice. That disappointment was quickly squashed by our next taco, a tasty creation filled with the thin-sliced beef brisket known as suadero. This beef was tender and slightly chewy, with a rich beef flavor that was accentuated by its time spent on the grill. From there, we moved on to the carne asada and were once again treated to well-cooked, flavorful, red-meat artistry.
Coming through the dining room to our table, we peeked a bit into the Eliella kitchen and saw a massive skewer of pork turning slowly, gyro-style, on a vertical spit, and we knew we had to sample it. The skewer turned out to be the basis for the tacos al pastor, and this filling was a big hit all around our table. Grilled onions and citrus flavor colored the meat with a lightness that was deepened by spice and slow-cooking. If Eliella served nothing but these pork tacos, it could still stand alone as a great taqueria.
We couldn't leave the place without sampling some of the more out-of-the-ordinary meats, ordering one taco de lengua and one filled with tripa. The tongue was as good as any we've tried, tender and chewy with just the slightest flavor of minerals. The tripa was a revelation, firm bits of small intestine that were fried to a delightful crunch outside with a chewy, flavorful center. Several at our table were squeamish about trying this filling, but all agreed it was better than expected with at least one of our party calling it the best taco of the day.
Aside from the tacos, Eliella has several tortas and burritos on the menu. The tortas are huge affairs, full of meat and topped with lettuce and tomato. We sampled the Torta Hawaiian ($7.25), filled with more of that excellent pastor and topped with grilled pineapple. That one was good, but it was nothing compared to the Torta Cubano ($7.25), a massive pile of chorizo, pastor, and grilled hot dogs that throws a fried egg into the mix just to take things to a level of decadence that's almost overwhelming. It's a massive sandwich, and one that definitely benefits from the incredibly cheap ($1.95) bottles of beer available.
While the grilled hot dogs on the Cubano were understandable, we were shocked to also discover them in our Burrito Especial, an item our waiter had told us only included chicken. Our lunch at Eliella will go down on history as the only luncheon we've ever attended where one member of the table looked around at everyone and said, "Is there a hot dog in my burrito?" Questioning some friends more familiar with the cuisine, we were told that this isn't uncommon in the cuisine of Northern Mexico, but while we found the wieners an acceptable addition to the Cubano, they just simply didn't work in the burrito. Still, given the rest of the excellent food, this was only a minor complaint.
Taking into account the inexpensive and tasty nature of the food, the friendliness of the service, and the speed with which our food came out, Eliella has to rank as one of the best food values in town. It occupies a rather anonymous storefront next to the Baseline Kum N' Go, but the interior is clean and inviting. It's an authentic menu that allows Mexican food lovers to try great versions of their old favorites or branch out and get something a little out of the ordinary, from crunchy beef intestines to hot dog and chicken burrito. In a world where our everyday choices for Mexican are all too often relegated to Tex-Mex or high-end fusion, it's good to know that there are places like Eliella around where the food is authentic, the beer is cold and the folks making the food exhibit a pride in what they do that comes through in nearly every bite.