Nearly neck and neck with the rise in Arkansas’s Latino population seems to be the number of Mexican restaurants in the state. Every time we turn around, there’s another Tex-Mex place springing up, each one declaring the freshness and authenticity of its food above all others.
As if that wasn’t perplexing enough for some diner on the prowl for a little South-of-the-border flavor, you can’t even ask anyone for advice. Every gringo in town seems to have a different joint that serves, far and away, the best Mexican food around — a place that makes all the others seem like a shift-change Taco Bell by comparison. If we could just get them all to agree, we might have something.
For denizens of downtown Little Rock, we might just have what can be called a solid lead: Cotija’s, in the old Your Mama’s Good Food Location at 406 S. Louisiana. A spin-off owned by a member of the same Alvarez family that started the La Hacienda chain of restaurants in Hot Springs (something akin to a Mexican soap opera happened recently over the use of the La Hacienda name up in Springdale, according to our server, and rather than getting the lawyers involved or getting folks confused, they went with Cotija’s — Cotija being the little town in Mexico near Guadalajara where the owner was born), every single thing we had on a recent visit ranked in the top tier of Mexican food we’ve had in Arkansas. You know immediately the La Hacienda connection when they bring out the sweet red salsa and the fiery green stuff.
All this, and just a brisk walk from our offices near the River Market, too? Gracias, amigos!
Bad news first. Sadly, Cotija’s didn’t escape the terror that haunts the soul of Tex-Mex places the world over: the Menu That Ate Guadalajara! Landing dead in the middle of one of our pet peeves, the menu at Cotija’s features over 130 items. As a companion remarked, “How special can a lunch special be if there are 27 of them?” Truer words were never spoken. While we like variety, we also like being able to read the menu without a magnifying glass. So, por favor, pick some favorites and stick to them, will ya? If I have a hankering for Huevos al Gusto at 1:30 in the afternoon, I’ll ask.
Now, nitpicking aside, the good news (as far as the things we ate, it was pretty much all good news). At our server’s suggestion, Companion A tried lunch special C17: the brochets con queso ($8.99). Companion B, meanwhile — possibly stunned by the vast menu — threw in the towel and went for lunch special No. 1, the beef taco, cheese enchilada, rice and bean plate ($4.99). I, meanwhile, tried the carnitas ($10.95), which turned out to be something like pork fajitas but served differently here than at other joints: rather than chunks of pork, we got a big serving of well-seasoned fall-off-the-bone ribs, grilled veggies, jalapenos, tortillas, and a side of rich, tomato-based guisada sauce.
As you can probably tell from my description it was probably one of the best dishes I’ve ever had at a Mexican restaurant — and one of the last things I ever would have ordered had I been left to my own devices. (And Jesus said: “Trust thy waitress over thine own self.”) With a side of lard-rich refried beans (though thankfully not as grease-filled as some we’ve had at the Cantrell Road La Hacienda) and sweet corn-laced rice, I ate until I thought they’d have to wheel me out the door.
That didn’t stop me, of course, from snagging a bite of Companion’s brochets con queso. It was even better than mine, if you could believe it: spicy chunks of beef, shrimp, chicken and pork, smothered in cheese and served with a fair helping of guacamole and sour cream. It’s well worth the lunch special price of $8.99.
Companion B didn’t get her enchilada covered in the red sauce she requested, but she didn’t complain, declaring her plate “very good.”
Once all that was cleaned away, we went the extra mile for you, dear reader, loosening our belts and journeying into what is undiscovered country for most Tex-Mex fans: the dessert menu. From the long list offered, we chose the fried cheesecake with ice cream: two big wedges of cheesecake, battered and deep fried, served covered in caramel, chocolate sauce and a dusting of cinnamon. It was served still warm with a generous scoop of ice cream.
While we suspect the ghost-town-like atmosphere of Little Rock’s concrete canyons after dark is likely to hurt Cotija’s until they can get a clientele built up (the Factory nightclub is just a few doors down, which should help them on Friday and Saturday nights at least) word always gets out about great food. They’re hoping, too, to have a liquor license in place to serve margaritas and make a nice after-work spot. As soon as the buzz picks up, it’s sure to be a new downtown favorite. Keep an eye out for folks from the Times. You’ll probably see some of us there.
Cotija’s Mexican Grill
3 1/2 stars
406 S. Louisiana
Quick bite
Those with a sweet tooth might try Cotija’s fabulous punch. Hot pink and sweet enough that our companion asked for a glass of water to tone it down.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday.
Other information
Inexpensive to moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Liquor pending.