LITTLE ROCK So many places we know today as glinting chain restaurants began life as paint-peeling clapboard storefronts run by enterprising families whose Ancestry.com profiles may well stretch back deep, deep into the Roosevelt (FDR) Administration.
When Santo Coyote opened along McCain Boulevard in North Little Rock in 2009, it conformed immediately to all the chain restaurant signifiers — commercial corridor presence, coherent interior aesthetic, delineated foyer as if waiting is normal — so we asked what other restaurants the parent company operated. No parent company. No other restaurants.
Well, surely more were in the works.
This summer, ownership opened its second location in the Pleasant Ridge shopping center, the anchor of a storefront strip located behind a Johnny Carino’s.
The new location is more airy and modern. Along the entire south side are garage bay doors that can be raised to let in the breeze, and there’s a popular patio strung with festive lights, although it overlooks the parking lot.
It isn’t just the neat, conventional dining spaces that make Santo Coy ote feel like a chain (and, to be clear I’m not using “chain” as a derision but a term connoting success built upon popular appeal). The menu too, boasts eclectic flavor fusions that arrive at the tongue too neatly not to have been pre-screened by a subterranean Manhattan Project-type test kitchen.
Nothing has changed at the west Little Rock locale that opened in July, and that’s convenient for fans who live around central Arkansas’ other sprawling shopping hub.
A NICE, SIPPING TEQUILA
Santo Coyote is primarily a restaurant, but, with 140 varieties, it can rightfully call itself a tequila bar.
A flight of three tequila shots runs $12 (for the lightly aged pour) to $20 (for the anejo, or well-aged stuff ). There are five labels, from well-known distilleries Patron and Don Julio to lessers like Herraduro and Chinaco.
Recently, some friends and I sprang for the anejo flight. Yeah, $20 might feel a little extravagant for three cups sized for Keebler elves — whoa, I’d like to see one of them slam Patron! — but we enjoyed discussing the relative merits of each and voting on our winner.
Frankly, tequila is not something most Americans think about. Not thinking is often blamed for drinking tequila, and that’s an ignorance that could be corrected.
SOME BOLDER CHOICES
One of the best choices we made was to start with the shrimp ceviche ($8) served with avocado slices, saltine crackers and spoonfuls of cilantro. Our crackers were a bit stale, which would have disappointed us more had we not stopped to ask ourselves, when’s the last time we ate a cracker at a Mexican restaurant?
Similarly the shrimp was “overcooked” by the citrus bath that is ceviche, but here again, I lay that blame on all of us for not consuming it fast enough. This should be a popular starter, not a nonstarter.
One of the fairly unique entrees is the Molcajete ($14), a mix of grilled chicken, Mexican sausage and marinated skirt steak seeped in tomatillo sauce and tossed with onions and pepper in a sizzling lava stone bowl the shape of a mammal of indeterminate order, then topped with a thick slice of cheese that’s partly melted by the time it arrives.
The proteins are nearly identical from a fajita platter, so the tomatillo sauce is the chief difference, and quite a difference it makes. Served with tortillas, it’s messier than fajitas, but for the crowd that really savors tang and heat, this is a great dish.
The menu here betrays glimpses of greater ambition than other Mexican places in the area, and the Molcajete is my favorite example, but the lamb chops entree ($16) is a jauntier offering yet.
It’s two pairs (that’s four) of lamb chops, cleaved and stuffed with polenta, sugar, spinach, and cheese, drizzled with raspberry coulis and served with two sides.
I’m particular about lamb chops. I don’t like when lamb chops are treated like chicken breast — palettes or pockets for smaller ingredients with zippier flavor profiles. Lamb is somewhat rare, and its own reward.
I wouldn’t order these again, but I don’t regret giving them a try.
SALSA VS. GUACAMOLE
The salsa at Santo Coyote is one item not built for popular appeal. It’s quite hot for want of a milder alternative.
It’s not chunky like pico de gallo, nor are there visible flakes of cilantro or chunks of pepper or onion. It’s sauce-y, and it’s hot. By the fourth bite I was reaching for my water.
If the salsa won’t please everyone, the tableside guacamole ($7) will. There’s no big secret here — you see all the stuff there in the condiment cups — but they get the consistency right. The mix is buttery, quite tart from a hefty spike of lime and, though sprinkled with diced jalapenos, not nearly as hot as the salsa.
This guacamole is served in the same great lava stone — what is it? A pig? Steer? Chupacabra? — as the molcajete, and I say the following with the greatest sincerity: If there isn’t at least one of these empty vessels on your party’s table when you leave, you’ve done gone wrong.
THE SANDWICH BOARD SPREAD
If you’ve not visited Santo Coyote, rest assured that all the Tex-Mex benchmarks are there:
Cheese dip (small $4, large $8).
Traditional tacos (steak, chicken, pork, Mexican sausage, and fish, shrimp or scallops, all $2.50).
The innumerable combinations (taco, enchilada, tamale, burrito, etc.) that run $10.
Fajitas (steak, chicken, seafood or vegetarian, $10 to $14).
And if you don’t like Tex-Mex — why’d you come? Never mind — there’s a grilled salmon salad ($10) or half-pound hamburger ($8) that, minus the chipotle mayonnaise, is no different from one served up at a sports bar.
Address: 11610 Pleasant Ridge Road, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 39 on 11/08/2012
Print Headline: Coyote: Eclectic flavors fused