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El Fuego Mexican Restaurant Delights with Food, Decor

Aug. 5, 2009
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With few windows facing the street and an entryway comprised of heavy wooden doors, the exterior of El Fuego resembles an oversized Spanish Colonial hacienda. Inside, however, things change dramatically. The theme is Disney-style Mexican, featuring two dining rooms painted in village scenes. The outdoor patio is complete with fireplaces, palm trees and a cascading waterfall that plunges into a pool filled with koi. A strong focus on decorative themes often means uninspired food—the Chi-Chi’s syndrome—but the menu at El Fuego actually lives up to the decor.

Though El Fuego is a large place, there is an army of servers and a kitchen that is up to the task. Salsa and a basket of fresh tortilla chips are whisked to the table. The salsa is a tomato red that resembles a Chili’s mild, but isn’t. Actually, it has a pleasant balance of spice that would rank as medium-hot. And the chips are always fresh. How about the Mercado Fresco? The guacamole is quite passable; it’s a bit runny, but there still are chunks of avocado. Some serrano pepper would be welcome, though.

Servings tend to be large. Pulpo ceviche ($7.95) arrives like a seafood cocktail, with minced pieces of octopus marinated in lime juice along with onion, cilantro, red pepper and a few slices of avocado. Bits of jicama add some sweetness. The ceviche could use a little more spice and citrus flavor. Still, this large serving, which arrives with a supply of chips, offers plenty to share.

The shrimp cocktail ($7.95-$10.95) is a better option. The serving is filled with shelled medium shrimp, chopped onion and fresh, pungent cilantro. The shrimp comes in a tomato sauce that is properly sweet, and there is enough hot pepper sauce that most people won’t want to add any extra (though every table features bottled hot sauce). Only the most ravenous should consider the larger serving, as there are ample amounts of shrimp.

The menu continues with tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, more seafood dishes and a good number of meat entrees. The fish selections of tilapia, salmon and trout do not seem particularly Mexican, but the whole red snapper does.

Everybody should try the mole. Pollo con mole poblano ($11.95) is the classic dish originated in the city of Puebla. Mole poblano is a delicious sauce of chocolate and peanuts, different from the more bittersweet Oaxacan mole negro. Commercial mole poblanos can be overly sweet and lacking in chocolate flavor, but this version, which is made here, is rich, intense and rather wonderful. The mole and a sprinkling of white sesame seeds mesh well with the half chicken with the bones in. The sides of orange-colored rice, though, are better companions for burritos and enchiladas than dishes of this stature.

The tacos al pastor ($8.95), unfortunately, somewhat misses the mark. The pork should be imbued with mild chiles; instead of an earthy reddish-brown, however, these slices of meat have an orange hue the color of the rice. The meat is lean, but too many pieces of fat remain. On the plus side, they are served properly on double tortillas with chopped cilantro, onion and a wedge of avocado. These are not bad tacos at all—the flavors simply do not say “al pastor.”

The pork pastor does just fine in other items. It is perfectly at home in the traditional enchiladas ($10.95), which benefit from a bold red sauce. And tamales ($8.95) seldom get this good. The pork is at its most tender and aromatic, with the addition of cumin, in this plate of three large tamales that are made in the kitchen.

There is a separate margarita menu with many premium tequila options. The mix is a standard tart one. The servers are thoughtful and attentive, and the kitchen is very efficient. A 30-minute lunch is definitely possible.

In all, El Fuego is as pleasant as it is attractive, with affordable prices and authentic character. Sit underneath a palm tree near the waterfall and imagine that the occasional aircraft noise is the sound of the surf crashing at Puerto Vallarta.

El Fuego 909 W. Layton Ave. (414) 455-3534 $$ Credit Cards: All major Smoking: Yes Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Don Rask


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