It may not actually represent “Mexican Independence Day,” but it sure is a darn good excuse to eat Mexican food. Central Arkansas is littered with great Mexican restaurants…perhaps more than any other cuisine type in existence. But this makes it simple to find somewhere to celebrate this spiciest of holidays. Here’s the 5 best authentic Mexican dishes to try on May 5.
Where to go: Taqueria Guadalajara (3811 Camp Robinson Rd, North Little Rock)
What to eat: The Bistek al la Mexicana: If you live north of the river, it’s still possible to find good south-of-the-border options, and Guadalajara dishes out some of the best. Within a menu studded with fine food, the Bistek a la Mexicana shines, making it difficult for us to want to eat anything else. They take generous hunks of thinly sliced steak, marinated and cooked on the flat-top, and top with a lovely assortment of grilled vegetables that includes strips of white onion, tomato, and jalapeños. There’s also a fresh salad to finish — lettuce, tomato, and avocado with a dollop of sour cream. Spoon this mixture into the provided tortillas and enjoy. It’s a hearty meal—you may want to plan on a short siesta afterward.
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Where to go: Mercado San Jose (7411 Geyer Springs Rd, Little Rock)
What to eat: The Tortas. There may not be a better “bang for your buck” in all the city. Big, freshly baked rolls, made in-house, are sliced open and filled with all kinds of wonderful Mexican ingredients. You just choose the meat (I’m partial to the unctuous, fatty “cabeza,” but most meats here are good) and they finish it off for you. Tomatoes, melted white cheese, creamy sour cream, lettuce, avocado, cilantro, and refried beans. Complete the sandwich with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of house-made hot sauce, of course. It’s a mammoth-sized meal that any sized appetite can enjoy.
Where to go: El Palenque (9501 N. Rodney Parham Rd, Little Rock)
What to eat: The “Tacos Arrieros.” This most inconspicuous of Mexican joints is finally starting to get some recognition around these parts—and for good reason. The food is always good, the prices are unbeatable. David, the young Mexican owner and cook, is friendly and warm, and while he mans the grill almost entirely on his own, he’s careful to prepare each item ordered with precision. The menu is flooded with exceptional food, but the Tacos Arrieros should be on everyone’s table at some point. This “taco deluxe” will cost you a few cents more, but it’s worth the difference. It’s a blend of chorizo and pastor meats, finished with pico de gallo and avocado, a squeeze of lime and obligatory house-made salsa. One of the finest tacos in town.
Where to go: Fonda Mexican Cuisine (400 North Bowman Road, Little Rock)
What to eat: The Queso Fundido: One of the slightly “fancier” authentic Mexican places in town, this young restaurant fights a slightly difficult location with consistently good food. But I’m hopelessly attracted to this appetizer—indeed, I’m often satisfied simply ordering two and making a meal out of it. Here’s the set up: They bring out a dangerously hot iron skillet, slap a handful of shredded white Mexican cheese on the plate, let it melt and bubble and throw some chorizo, onions, and pico de gallo into the mix. Scoop up with a spoon, slather on their splendid tortillas. Devour. It’s a little piece of “cielo.” Be sure you don’t neglect the nearly-burned, crispy skin that develops on the very bottom of the dish—chewy and greasy, it’s the most delectable bite on the plate. There’s a vegetarian version made with sautéed mushrooms instead of chorizo, and it’s different but equally addictive.
Where to go: El Torito (303 Bowman Rd, Little Rock)
What to eat: The Churros: Among Mexican bakeries, you often find little distinction in these parts. But El Torito does one item better than any other—their fresh churros are a must for any Mexican celebration. These are long tubes of chewy dough, piped through a star-shaped nozzle and deep fried. They’re dusted with cinnamon and sugar and sold fresh from the oven. But the churros at El Torito are filled with a sweet surprise—a ribbon of creamy, sticky dulce de leche that oozes from their centers with every bite. Each one will only put you back about $1, so they’re perfect for grabbing a dozen to-go and delivering to any of the various Mexican celebrations you or your friends may be having at home—they’ll be a hit wherever they go.