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What area Mexican food fans long have taken for granted in terms of variety, price and quality took root when Juanita's opened at 1300 S. Main St. in 1986. And 27 years later, what was unique to our market then now is the norm — cheese dip both white and yellow, fajitas, high-quality tamales, quesadillas, flautas, fish tacos, massive burritos and a broad selection of top-shelf tequilas. Those of us who grew up on Saltillo plates at the old Browning's and combo dinners at Mexico Chiquito knew none of that ... until Juanita's.
After a quarter-century in its original location, Juanita's relocated in summer 2011 to the River Market District on the eastern end of the main President Clinton Avenue drag, by the Clinton Center store. There were some culinary hiccups late in the Main Street days and early at the "new" Juanita's, but several recent meals there offer clear proof Juanita's is back in the game.
One important step in getting things right, we're told, was hiring a new chef from On the Border a little more than a year ago. He changed the menu, standardized some processes and kicked up the quality of Juanita's dishes in terms of taste and presentation. Not that On the Border is the be-all, end-all of Tex-Mex dining, but it's solid as a rock, as is Juanita's today.
Those of us who live and work downtown roll our eyes when we hear pronouncements that there's no parking downtown. Au contraire, West Little Rockers, and that incorrect perception has cost Juanita's business. Know this: between on-street, deck and surface lot parking, downtown has plenty of room for motorists who don't mind walking a block or two. With the recent installation of paid parking along President Clinton and side streets, the spots turn over more rapidly, and one of our Juanita's dining companions on a recent weekday got a spot right outside the restaurant's door.
Everyone in our party of seven finished lunch equal parts impressed and full. We started with salsa (bright and fresh) and both cheese dips ($5.49 each). The yellow is our favorite in town, rich and flavorful, studded with tomato and pepper chunks. The white is the classic from the old Blue Mesa, a before-its-time west Little Rock eatery where Mark Abernathy — the original culinary force at Juanita's (and now Loca Luna and Red Door) — introduced white cheese dip to Little Rock. It's as good as ever, also full-bodied with cilantro the primary herb component. The chunky guacamole ($5.99) is basic as good guac should be — avocado, onion, cilantro, lime juice and a dose of spices. All it lacked was adequate salt, easily remedied.
• Classic cheese enchiladas with chili ($7.99), as good as any, with rice (not quite cooked enough) and choice of three styles of beans — black, brown or refried.
• Mexican ribs ($10.99 for a seven-rib half rack; $17.99 for a full rack) — tender with a nice, slightly sweet rub. These, we're told, will depart the main menu in 2014 and only appear as an occasional special.
• Double stack quesadilla ($9.99), a whopper with a double portion of grilled chicken, veggies, cheese and caramelized onions in a massive flour tortilla. This hearty eater could get down only three of the four wedges.
• Taco Callejeros (street tacos: three for $9.99). There are five meat choices; our friend opted for spicy chorizo on white corn tortillas and grilled with jack cheese, diced onions and cilantro — the simple style so popular at food trucks. These were one of the meal's highlights and among the menu's most popular items, we're told.
• Bacon-wrapped shrimp ($12.99): six grilled shrimp stuffed with a jalapeno slice, wrapped in bacon and grilled, then topped with Monterey Jack. Unlike many renditions of this dish, the shrimp were tasty and still tender.
• Veggie fajitas ($11.99): our vegetarian friend was thrilled with the tasty caramelized grilled vegetable medley that included red and yellow bell peppers, portabellas, red onion, squash and zucchini, and he had plenty of leftovers.
• Hot tamale plate ($7.99) — two smallish but very flavorful tamales (not housemade but excellent), smothered in chili and topped with melted cheese and onions.
When we're trying to eat a little lighter, we go for the tortilla soup ($3.99 for a not-so-small small portion; $4.99 for large). It's not the huge production number like some places but not priced like it either. And it's seriously good — rich chicken broth, onion, many tender chunks of white meat, rice, corn, peppers, cilantro, tortilla strips and shards of jack that invariably melt nicely.
And don't forget that while the restaurant is dishing up good Tex-Mex downstairs Juanita's has a large entertainment space upstairs. Third Eye Blind is playing Saturday night (Nov. 30). Tickets are $45, but might be sold out by now. There's salsa dancing every Friday night and other pretty big-name shows most months. Check the calendar at juanitas.com/calendar.