Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
When thinking about great, authentic Mexican food, our minds tend to wander towards the southern parts of our city — our "south of the border." But let's consider what's going on north of the river — the Arkansas, not the Rio Grande.
We've been hearing rumors for some time now that the North Little Rock neighborhood known as Levy is one of Central Arkansas's undiscovered culinary treasure troves. One such gem is the popular Mexican standby, Taqueria Guadalajara.
Without being told to stop, you'd probably easily pass by the place a dozen times, perhaps more. It's in a nondescript brown building with plain, unimpressive signage. There's no nicely groomed patio, no sleek branding. But the parking lot packed with cars at the lunch hour should tip you off to the fact that locals know there is much good going on within Guadalajara's walls.
On our visit, the place was bustling. At least 80 percent of the seats were full — families, workers on their lunch hour, Latinos and gringos alike. Very promising. On our way to our table, we quickly eyed the surrounding tables filled with food to get an idea of what others were eating.
We knew we had to sample the Bistek a la Mexicana ($7.49) — it was highly recommended by a Guadalajara regular and our waitress, who said it was the best item on the menu. The bistek plate begins with a few generous hunks of thinly sliced steak, marinated and cooked on the flat-top. The steak finishes up tender, juicy (despite its relative thinness), with scattered crispy bits around the edges from the sear of the hot metal. On top of this rests a lovely assortment of grilled vegetables that included strips of white onion, tomato, and jalapeños. Lastly, there's a fresh salad — lettuce, tomato, and avocado with a dollop of sour cream. All of this is to be scooped into the provided tortillas, which are sourced from a local producer, Tortilla Brenda in Little Rock. The results were superb — flavors and textures were spot on, and it was easy to see how this had become such a popular item.
Also from the "Platillos de la Casa," we sampled the Milanesas ($7.49). The tenderized and flattened steak was breaded and fried in oil. The result is something akin to a chicken-fried steak, but the breading is much lighter and less salty. We thoroughly enjoyed it — tender, just slightly crunchy. It came alongside a similar assortment of fresh vegetables and a small stack of tortillas. We should also mention the accompanying beans and rice were quality specimens, the beans thick and flavorful and the rice nicely seasoned. Both dishes were all-around winners.
We tasted Guadalajara's sizable burritos ($4.49), one al pastor (with seasoned pork), lettuce, tomato, sour cream, beans, rice and cheese. We've eaten many such burritos around town, but this was certainly among the best. Shower this thing in gobs of spicy red or cool, slightly sweet tomatillo salsas and you've got an unbeatable and very portable meal, perfect if you're on the go. We also last sampled the pork tamales ($0.99 each); they were the least impressive of the lot. The filling was ample but the flavors seemed a little dull compared to our earlier favorites. The masa felt a little weighty and probably detracted from the tamale overall.
After emptying the last of our bottles — which included several fruit-flavored Jarritos, a Mexican Coke, and a few Mexican beers — our table was wholly satisfied in Guadalajara's ability to deliver exceptional Mexican cuisine. One need look no further than the total at the bottom of the bill to realize that this is surely one of the greatest values in town — good enough, perhaps, to even lure those hard-headed folks on the other side of the water to see what's happening in Levy.