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Taqueria is a hidden treasure

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published December 19, 2013 at 3:27 a.m.

tacos-carne-al-pastor-feature-ample-meat-with-just-the-right-balance-of-onions-and-cilantro-at-taqueria-el-palenque-on-rodney-parham-road

Tacos Carne al Pastor feature ample meat with just the right balance of onions and cilantro at Taqueria el Palenque on Rodney Parham Road.

You’re probably already familiar with the strip center on Rodney Parham Road at Treasure Hill Road, because Layla’s is its southeast anchor.

Tucked away at the other, northwest end of that center, however is a small, hole-in the-wall restaurant space. You can’t see it from the street, either Rodney Parham or Treasure Hills, and that may be one reason why none of the several previous Mexican restaurants that have occupied it survived. (We gave a positive review to Su Casa, but a couple of others came and went before we even knew they were there.)

We finally found our way into Taqueria el Palenque, which has been there about two years, and we’re glad we did. The food is muy autentico and, si claro, muy bueno.

Our Spanish dictionary def ines “palenque” as a palisade, with a secondary meaning of “arena.” We’re not sure which applies here, since the restaurant is neither large nor oval and isn’t particularly well defended.

A satellite radio station plays Mexican music with English-language commercials. From the ubiquitous promotional paraphernalia for various brands of American and Mexican beer, some (the ones on the walls) semi-permanent, some (like the Modelo ads currently strung across the ceiling) seasonal, you should know the restaurant serves domestic brands ($2.49) and cerveza Mexicana ($2.99).

You know that the food is authentic by the high Latino-to-gringo ratio at the decently spaced tables (seating for about 40), all of which have a nice view of at least one of the two television sets showing Mexican programming via satellite (everything from sporting events and telenovelas to dubbed American movies and - is there a Spanish word for infomercial?) and the partially open kitchen, from which wonderful things emerge.

That includes the tacos ($1.49 per), soft corn tortillas with any of seven meat options - carne asada (grilled beef), carne al pastor (grilled pork), chorizo (Mexican sausage), barbacoa de res (shredded beef ), carnitas (marinated pork roast), buche (pork esophagus, which apparently is different from tripas or tripe) and lengua (beef tongue).

The carne asada, carne al pastor and chorizo tacos were all superb, with plenty of meat, just enough onions and cilantro in just the right balance for maximum flavor. The al pastor tacos also had pineapple chunks, a nice touch. In addition to the several “heats” of bottled hot sauce already on the table, our waitress brought squeeze bottles of taco sauce - a very vivid red and nicely zippy tomatillo-based green.

There’s no better proof of how much you can get for your dinero than the Enchilada plate ($6.99), among the Palenque Specials. You get not three but four enchiladas, with choice of fillings and red or green salsa or queso on top, plus rice and beans (more on those later).

We went with the “delicate stomach” option of cheese enchiladas generously topped with the restaurant’s subtly spiced queso ($1.99 small, $3.99 large as an appetizer), and while we were in less danger of spice-induced heartburn we were at risk of being just plain too full.

Other Palenque Specials we’ll go back to try: the Plato de Carnitas ($8.99) and the Pollo Caribeno (also $8.99), chicken breast with spinach, mushrooms and pineapple. We’d even be willing to take a flier on the Higado Encebollados ($8.99, too), the traditional Mexican liver and onions.

All the entrees come with a goodly helping of fresh, rich and flavorful refried beans and subtle but really flavorful Mexican rice (and of how many places around here can you really say that?).

Speaking of appetizers, you will find few, if any, better guacamoles in this area than Palenque’s ($1.99, $3.99). Even the stuff we’ve had made at tableside doesn’t come closer than close - it may not have been made to order, but it’s fresh, it’s chunky, it’s full of flavors and there’s an excellent balance (a word you will begin to realize you’re seeing a lot of in this review) between the tastes of avocado, citrus, onion, garlic and cilantro.

The Cocktel de Cameron ($9.99) is not an appetizer. It comes in a huge goblet full of a rich, tomato-based cocktail sauce-soup chock-full of diced onions, cilantro and at least a dozen medium-size, nicely firm and exceedingly tasty shrimp (unlike most Mexican shrimp cocktails, where we’d run out of shrimp long before we got to the bottom of the goblet, here we kept finding them at surprising depths). Generous slices of seemingly marinated avocado come on top.

Among Palenque’s $6.99 lunch plates: An excellent Huevos con Chorizo, also excellently balanced between egg (somewhere between chopped and scrambled) and a pleasantly spicy but not overwhelming chorizo in nearly equal portions, plus more rice and beans. And yes, we did clean our plate, thank you.

Nonalcoholic beverages ($1.99) include half-liter bottles of Mexican sodas (including the Mexican versions of Coca-Cola and Fanta orange, made with sugar and not corn syrup) and three varieties of punch in bubblers - strawberry, coconut and orange (which we tried and liked a lot).

As at most Mexican restaurants, food comes out quickly and piping hot. There’s generally one server on the floor and she was enthusiastic, efficient and helpful. Though minor miscommunications are still possible (we encountered a couple), everybody working there speaks enough English that non-Hispanic customers need not feel out of their element. There is no to-go menu, so unless you know what you want before you call, you’ll have to figure it out when you get there.

Taqueria el Palenque Address: 9501 N. Rodney Parham Road, Little Rock Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.Tuesday-Sunday Cuisine: Mexican Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D, DC Alcoholic beverages: Beer Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 312-0045

Weekend, Pages 32 on 12/19/2013

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