tacos at El Mezcal imageBrian Chilson
SPECTACULAR: The tacos at El Mezcal.

The folks at El Mezcal (2721 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock) explained to me earlier this week that the restaurant is not officially open and won’t be until a grand opening planned for about two weeks from now, but they’ve been serving food and figuring out what is working and what might need changing before they are officially off and running.

So, don’t take this as a full-fledged restaurant review from Arkansas Times. I’m just letting you know what I loved and what might need that aforementioned improvement (very little, we’ll tell you now!). I contribute this piece only for a couple of reasons: I’ve been waiting a long time for something (and by that I mean something GOOD!) to move into what should be a highly desirable space where The Afterthought bar once did business for eons; and, two, I’m really excited about the experience I had at El Mezcal and can’t wait to return, whether it’s during official time or not.

Our group arrived a little after 6 p.m. and was told there would be a 30-minute wait and the restaurant was also planning to close at 7 p.m. This was likely more the result of limited number of waitstaff than the tables available, though all but one four-top, including all the booths along the wall, were filled in one half of the restuarant’s space. The other half, behind a room divider and which will allow El Mezcal to become one happening tequila-and-food joint in the coming weeks, was not being used for dining. The young girl positioned as seating hostess seemed new to the role. She didn’t offer the bar as an option for waiting, but we took it nonetheless.

The female bartender, though, was up on what was what, and when she wasn’t busy taking drink orders both at the bar and from the staff we learned much from her. She didn’t have her full accompaniment of beers and drinks available because, frankly, they didn’t expect the pre-opening crowd that showed up — hard to replenish the Modelo supply from retailers on a Sunday in Pulaski County (hint, hint Little Rock). But she could make a dandy 20-ounce house margarita (perfect for my taste, a little tart for some others in our group, and simply TOO BIG for another, who had plenty to share with the other three in our group).

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Brian Chilson
A FANCY TOUCH: The dining room features chandeliers.

The bartender offered chips, salsa, took an order for cheese dip, gave us menus and gladly would have hosted our entire meal right there if we’d wanted. I was starving, comfortable now and willing to sit in place, but we had others who were dying for the booth experience. No problem, she said. We cashed out moments later when a male server (maybe the manager or owner?) had two booths come open.

We sat in the booth a while and fully understood the delay in our meal order being taken because our server was obviously overwhelmed with other tables. When the restaurant is officially open we’ll expect promptness and we feel sure we’re going to get it.

A couple of non-food things before we get to the main courses: The first-timer at El Mezcal is going to see the menu and think this is YET ANOTHER of the numerous “authentic Mex” restaurants that have opened in Little Rock since Cancun, El Porton, Senor Tequila, Casa Manana, La Hacienda, Rivera Maya, etc., etc., opened in the market. To be fair, regulars at any of those Little Rock-area Mex restaurants will detect subtle differences. Don’t be fooled by El Mezcal, either. It will be unique in many ways.

The differences, not so subtle here, start in the kitchen with a cook who has devised more flavorful presentations of even the ubiquitous white cheese dip. There is a seasoning in this version that makes it completely different (yet still all white) from any we’ve had.

Also, note that the team that put in El Mezcal seems to have spared no expense in gutting the old Afterthought and additional space eastward of the building, added classy chandelier lighting, sturdy wooden booths with El Mexcal engraved into the back supports, and much more. This is a gorgeous place as the local Mex joints go. With those large windows in front retained from The Afterthought days, El Mezcal also will let diners people-watch on Kavanaugh as they sip a house margarita or a cerveza.

The salsa didn’t strike us as any different from others. The chips are basic, too. And here, we suggest one change: We were offered a complimentary guacamole dip, which for our group drew an immediate “of course.” We’re not sure WHY we were offered it, whether someone else took one look and say “nah” to the server bringing it to them, or whether the kitchen needed to move guacamole out of the kitchen before it went brown. But, we highly recommend El Mezcal ditch this version, which lacked seasoning. Rather, just step it up a notch like everything else we experienced with the soon-to-arrive main courses. This guac was “fine,” if it’s OK to call anything fine. My wife, one of this dining group, would NOT consider “fine” as a compliment. I mean, with some salt, black pepper and salsa added to this small bowl, it was, as we said, “fine.” But, El Mezcal, do like you’ve done with other specialties and shoot a little more for the moon, charge another dollar if you have to, make it tableside like a lot of the competition if need be. But if nothing else, ADD SOME SEASONING and some fresh jalapenos.

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Brian Chilson
AFTER THE AFTERTHOUGHT: El Mezcal moves in.

The main courses, as we were soon to learn, almost demand that the prelims be something special, too. Again, we weren’t planning to write about the visit when we arrived, so we ordered what we wanted, which meant two diners both wanted tacos. You get FOUR per plate. The waitstaff said it was cool to order 2-and-2 (meaning, out of five or six meat options available, they could pick two of one and two of another, so they both had two chicken and two carnitas tacos). Another diner went with the chilaquiles, but truthfully we didn’t pay much attention to the plate outside of noting the fried egg on top and seeing the plate being literally destroyed by the diner soon after it arrived.

As for me, I won’t go to any Mex restaurant anywhere without at least once trying the enchiladas. The Enchiladas Rancheros on the menu calls for three cheese enchiladas topped with sauce, beef, onions and a salad on the side covered in more guac along with pico de gallo and sour cream. The server, however, asked me more specific questions than I was ready to answer, such as what type of sauce, what type of meat in the enchiladas (really, I can have a mixture?) and, though thoroughly confused, I jumped at topping two cheese/one chicken with red sauce.

Those who ordered the tacos said they were spectacular, flavorful, and maybe too much for one person, etc. They were five-star. The carnitas had been prepared perfectly, with the crispy (or burnt) ends. The plates also came with a catcus salad (I guess it’s pickled cactus, and I love it), similar to what Dos Rocas downtown serves as a side.

Listen, for just a little more than a whopping TEN DOLLARS, you get four tacos on flour or corn tortillas. I’ll save you the trouble at doing the simple math and tell you that you are getting a lot of meat and more per taco at around $2.50 — restaurant dinner tacos at street taco prices, and muy delicioso. Just up the street at another crowded, popular taco and tamale restaurant and drinking establishment, you’ll get half that amount of food at the same price.

That alone should get folks who frequent these places talking.

I thought three enchiladas and the sides for just over $10 was also a bargain, especially for how stunningly good-tasting this plate was. Most cheese enchiladas around here taste like they’ve been made with a rubbery synthetic filling. Not these. And again, like the cheese dip, something as simple as red sauce allows the chef to show off some skills. There was a just-right hint of sweet to offset the spiciness. I was already nearly gorged on endless chips and dip, but still devoured the entire plate.

Surprisingly (or maybe not, depends on your perspective), the bar bill was way, way more for us than the main dinner. Those 20-ounce house margaritas run around $10 each (there are 12-ounce margaritas and a Sonic-like 44-ounce killer available), not including the STUPID ARKANSAS TAX ON ALCOHOL that adds another 30-something percent whammy on your bill. (We say this having just returned from Missouri, which treats its alcohol-drinking citizens much more nicely than does The Natural State).

We weren’t offered dessert, nor would we have asked for it. We were done, we paid up and headed out, feeling confident that Hillcrest residents and those from beyond are going to love El Mezcal when it is fully operational, complete with a full array of tequilas, cervezas and with the kinks knocked aside thanks to this soft opening period.