For a long time, I’ve been eyeing the profusion of Mexican restaurants down Stagecoach Road just west of Interstate 430, but until recently, I had yet to stop at any of these. You see, I have family in the Bryant area, and when I’m going to visit them, it’s usually for dinner, so all I could do was cast my gaze upon these various establishments longingly while slogging through the end-of-day traffic, westbound and down.
However, during a recent week away from the day job to catch up on work around the house, the wife and I decided it might be fun to have an occasional excursion out and start visiting some of these places.
We started with dinner at La Villa (12325 Stagecoach), a bright yellow building at the corner of Stagecoach and N. Alexander Road, located right at the city limits and the county line. The place had previously been an Italian restaurant called D’Carlo, but the current incarnation seems more popular with the locals, complete with an outdoor patio on the eastern side so that it comfortably rests in the building’s shadow as the sun sets in the evening.
The wife was well pleased with her order, and if at first I lamented the lack of sides with mine, I had to admit, upon finishing it, that I was actually the perfect level of full, not stuffed but content. The same situation would not prevail at our stop for lunch the next day.
Cantina Cinco de Mayo (10900 Stagecoach) is located in a small shopping center that would be utterly nondescript were it not for the restaurant’s front-facing patio. Here, the wife had ordered a plate of taquitos, not having previously had them in the wild (that is, not from the frozen food section of the local grocery store), while I scanned the specialties page for something unique, eventually ordering an item called Molcajete Jalisco. When it arrived, the wife stared at the space on the table in front of me and said, “So you won’t be needing any dinner.”
This Molcajete Jalisco is like a more interesting kind of fajita mix, with chicken and beef alongside nearly caramelized yellow onion, grilled green onions, jalapeno and poblano peppers, and a slab of grilled cactus, with a side of beans and rice, with tortillas. But the mixture comes served in a large stone mortar containing enough for two people.
As the wife finished her taquitos, which she reported to be excellent, with the ground beef being seasoned marvelously, I was halfway through my lunch but nearly at the end of my ability.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at something in my stone mortar. “Grilled onion,” I said, ladling one over to her plate. “Oooh, that is really good!” she beamed. “You should also try some of this cactus, and this meat is tasty,” I said, again making ready with the fork. And soon enough, I had finished the whole thing.
Cantina Cinco De Mayo has a nice margarita list, too, with serving sizes ranging from 12 ounces to 60. I tried the Cazadores Margarita, which blends Cazadores tequila with a house mix, while the wife tried their Green Iguana, which features a generous splash of Midori melon liqueur to give the thing an impressive shade of green. Both were top notch.
And no, I did not require dinner that night.
For our next lunch outing, I was determined to avoid overstuffing myself and so stuck with the lunch specials page of the menu. However, I apparently just nodded absentmindedly to some question from our server while ordering drinks and so ended up with the large mug of Dos Equis. So it goes.
This next spot, Las Palmas (10402 Stagecoach), occupies the corner of a shopping center back a ways from the main drag, not very visible from the road, and so it wasn’t until I pulled up to it on a rainy day that I realized it had its own covered outdoor patio, and it wasn’t until we walked inside that we realized the place was much larger than it seemed. This is the Little Rock outlet of a small Arkansas chain with other restaurants in North Little Rock, Russellville and Conway. In the back is a cozy bar area with televisions tuned, on the day we visited, to Spanish-language channels broadcasting soccer matches.
I ordered the chicken chimichanga lunch special, while the wife snagged herself a beef tostada. Both orders came out hot before I had even downed a third of my beer. My chimichanga had a crispy shell, tender shredded chicken and the basic accompaniments of rice, beans, guacamole, and salad, all of it improved just a notch by a liberal dose of something I had never tried before, El Yucateco habanero sauce.
Yes, it was a fairly ordinary meal, the standard fare of storefront Mexican restaurants, but it was just what I wanted, and as a professor of mine once said, “The word ordinary shares the same root as do the words order and ordain. The ordinary is that by which we set our stars. To be ordinary is to constitute the standard for everything to come.” Plus, the tab for our respective lunch specials, my giant beer, and the wife’s orange Fanta came out to $25 before tip, making for a very affordable outing. While I was wrapping up my last bites, another server walked by carrying a large stone mortar of sizzling hot contents to some sucker in a distant booth, making me all the happier with my modest meal.
That first day of our expedition of Mexican restaurants on Stagecoach Road, sitting there at La Villa and sipping margaritas, the wife said to me, “You should make this piece you’re doing an ode to your basic but good Mexican restaurant. The sort of place where Little League teams have a celebratory dinner after the game, or where longtime friends have a girls’ night out. These aren’t places where foodies congregate and oooh and aaaah over some ‘authentic’ menu item. But these are some of the most integrated places you’ll find. And that’s something special.”
And she’s right. Places like this offer food and comfort to a broad cross-section of America. In each place, there were one or two people sitting quietly at the bar while some large family gathering was hooting at the other end of the restaurant and a couple in the corner was making eyes at each other. Sitting there with a large margarita, tortillas, and a plate of sizzling meat and vegetables, a palate that pulls from across broad latitudes, reminds you that the name “America” designates almost this whole damn hemisphere from top to bottom. What we so often mean when we say “America” is just the beginning but nowhere near the end.
And neither is our exploration of Stagecoach Road cuisine at an end.
Stay tuned …