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Hidden deliciousness 

Seek out El Palenque.

click to enlarge UNBELIEVABLE BARGAIN: For about $8, you can have two Tostadas de Camarones, which make a great meal or appetizer for the table.
  • UNBELIEVABLE BARGAIN: For about $8, you can have two Tostadas de Camarones, which make a great meal or appetizer for the table.

The Spanish word palenque roughly translates to "a palisade or stockade," as well as "an arena" ostensibly for cockfighting, and is the name given to the famed ruins hidden for centuries in the jungles of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

Taqueria El Palenque, the restaurant in West Little Rock, is about as hidden away as its apparent namesake, and yet fans flock en masse to what is essentially a taco food truck with a roof and indoor seating. Let's qualify: It would be a GREAT taco food truck were it on wheels, and probably easier to access.

Nevertheless, and thankfully for us because we're aging not so gracefully and would rather eat our food sitting down at a table, we can enjoy the best of fast and authentic Mexican taco specialties and more at Taqueria El Palenque. And lately, they've redone the seating; gone are the old chairs and cheap tables more suitable for a coffee shop, and in their place are nicer dining tables, colorful chairs and booths, including several with carved and painted scenes of Mexican revolutionary leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

The owners didn't have to go to all that trouble for us; we love the place for the food over anything else, even if we sometimes have to suck in our ever-expanding stomach to fit into one of the new booths.

We'll get to all the tacos in a moment, but first: Do not miss at least trying the Soupa de Tortilla. The server will immediately tell you it will take an extra 15 minutes compared with everyone else's taco, torta or quesadilla order, but don't mind that. In those 15 minutes, the cooks in the tiny kitchen apparently put everything together from scratch; this soup isn't just spooned out of some container from the fridge and microwaved. It's LOADED with vegetables and fajita-style chicken, with tortillas covering the bottom of the ginormous bowl, all in a flavorful broth and selling for less than $7. It's as good as any tortilla soup we've had, and we've paid mucho dinero for much less.

To be honest, despite national internet food listings raving about El Palenque, we'd never had any idea what or where it was until friends took us a few months back. Now, we can't get enough. It's crammed into an already overstuffed little strip mall that also houses the wonderful Mediterranean restaurant Layla's Gyros and Pizzeria; the Mexican grocery store Perla blocks the view of Palenque from Rodney Parham Road. There's parking for about four cars in front of the place if the inevitable 18-wheel delivery truck isn't blocking it (don't fret, as plenty of spaces abound in the very back of the building). There are, by our count, only 36 seats, give or take an extra chair slipped in for one of nine tables seating four people each. The food, with the exception of the tortilla soup, comes out very fast and the turnover is quick. You won't wait long, even at high noon.

El Palenque's tortas are a regular order for one of our diner buddies. Basically a sandwich, they are filling, inexpensive and delicious. They can be ordered with different meats — beef, chicken, chorizo and milanesa (think chicken-fried steak) — but the carnitas version soars above them all. Many elements combine to make the sandwich a must-order item: its pork tips are slowly braised and then flash-fried on the taqueria's grill, giving a slightly crispy outer layer to the melt-in-your-mouth morsels. The toasted bolillo bread, also known as pan francés, provides the perfect platform on which to build the torta, which is dressed with lettuce, pickled jalapeños, onions, tomatoes, avocado and sour cream. We recommend a generous application of El Palenque's salsa verde to complete the sandwich.

click to enlarge TORTAS, TOO: You might be tempted to just feast on tacos, but the tortas (especially with the carnitas) are a favorite.
  • TORTAS, TOO: You might be tempted to just feast on tacos, but the tortas (especially with the carnitas) are a favorite.

Another favorite is the huarache. Named for its resemblance to the Mexican sandal, this oblong vessel is similar to a tostada in that it can be loaded with various meats and other toppings. But instead of a fried corn tortilla, the huarache consists of a piece of delectably soft fried masa dough.

We also like the chorizo, especially when it's paired with carne asada in the taco or burrito arriero (translates to muleskinner), two of El Palenque's specialties. We ran into a diner from Tulsa on a recent visit who told us he stops at El Palenque every time his frequent business trips bring him to Little Rock, always ordering the arrieros tacos ($1.99 each, compared with $1.50 for the other tacos). Unlike the regular street tacos at El Palenque, the arrieros are served on flour tortillas and are dressed with pico de gallo and avocado slices.

But there are so many other choices, and you should mix and match. Palenque's carnitas definitely need to be among your table's orders, though. The Tacos de Carnitas, in fact, took us mentally back to a taqueria on Mexican beach on the Pacific Coast, competing with a lady selling pies to sunbathers. These juicy "little meats" brim with flavor after simmering in spices. Somehow, ends and edges maintain a dryness that adds a salty touch, much the way burnt ends and bark add a kick to Southern barbecue. All carnitas' companions come along for the ride — a soft tortilla, cilantro, onions and salsa. We douse the whole thing with a spray from a bottle of Palenque's perfect salsa verde. The combination makes a trio of these a perfect, economical lunch.

The guacamole here ($3.99) is fresh and first-rate, so make sure to get some either as a side or a full order for the table. Palenque also has plenty of great sit-down specialties more suitable for dinner, such as whole fish and other seafood, steak and large fajita servings. A few breakfast-style egg dishes also are available. It's amazing how much quality can come out of such a small kitchen.

Palenque appears to do enchiladas only because it has to — the one enchiladas plate is $7.95 and it's basic. The cheese dip ($4.99) is the ubiquitous white kind, maybe with a bit of diced jalapeno tumbling in it, and is enhanced by a healthy squirt from either the green tomatillo sauce or the fiery red pepper sauce. (Ask your server if she hasn't already put the two sauces on your table.) Palenque's salsa, meanwhile, is unusual. It's more like stewed tomatoes and peppers and is very runny. It also works best added to the cheese dip, but the taste is great.

But you didn't come to Palenque for cheese dip or salsa. You came, at least at lunchtime, for street-style tacos and burritos and the like, and maybe a Jarritos soda pop or a cerveza on the side, all with a nice place to sit among likeminded diners.

Taqueria El Palenque
9501 N. Rodney Parham Road
312-0045

Quick bite

Here's a perfect fast lunch: two Tacos Arrieros ($1.99 each) and the Tostado de Camarones (a ridiculously inexpensive $3.49 for what you get: six shrimp cooked in lime juice and topped with nearly a bowlful of some of the best guacamole in Arkansas. You've still got money left from your $10 for a Jarritos soda, too).

Hours

10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Other info

Beer available. Credit cards accepted.


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