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Eats: Aim for Valquero West
BY KURT RABIN
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
In college I worked at a taco place in Wisconsin, so I know everything there is to know about Mexican food. Like what exactly goes into refried beans. (Don’t ask!) And the saturated-fat content of the ground meat. (Let’s just say “pink slime” would be a vast improvement over the grade of beef we used back then.) I even know the proper technique for folding a burrito. (We don’t have time here.)
There were only two items on the menu at Taco Grande—tacos and burritos—but that didn’t stop half the customers from asking what a taco was. “It’s a tortilla with meat, cheese and salsa,” we said. “What’s a boh-REE-toe?” the other half wanted to know. “It’s a tortilla with meat, cheese and salsa,” we said.
Mexican food is great. But, north of the border at least, it’s all basically the same. It’s as if a Mexican food cartel met 50 years ago in Mexico City and came up with the idea for a single entrée—then marketed it to us gringos under 12 different guises. If you don’t believe me, check out the menu at most any Mexican place. Right after the illustrations of the ancient Mayan and Toltec gods, you’ll find a glossary of dishes—except their descriptions are all exactly the same!
That was certainly the case when my wife and I visited the new El Vaquero West in Locust Grove recently. However, to be fair, their menu listed a dish I wasn’t familiar with—chilaquiles. (I know, the name rolls right off the tongue. In fact, I can’t stop saying it!)
Turns out chilaquiles are tortillas with meat, cheese and salsa. That had a familiar ring to it. But then, everything about El Vaquero seemed familiar: the humble décor, the tinny strains of mariachi music, the complimentary chips and salsa, the fruity Mexican sodas with enough pure cane sugar to strip the enamel off your pearly whites, not to mention the lava-hot plates that transmute the combo platters’ disparate flavors into one heavenly, albeit heavily seasoned, taste.
My partner ordered the Mexican Special ($7.85), consisting of a tamale, two chicken taquitos and nacho chips with beef and beans, topped with lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and tomatoes. The portions were generous, the results pleasing.
I had Fajitas del Mar—fish, scallops and shrimp cooked with bell pepper and onion, served with salad, guac and small flour tortillas ($13.50). The scallops were chewy and the shrimp overcooked, but the char-grilled fish managed to retain its delicate texture, making it perfect for rolling several delicious fish tacos. (See, I did learn something in college!)
El Vaquero is, however, markedly different from its competitors in one important regard—service. Not only were we greeted and then seated immediately, but—when we asked for suggestions—our waitress enthusiastically campaigned for the restaurant’s offerings, delivering in a singsong voice her recommendations from the menu’s every page: “Car-ni-tas! Fa-ji-tas! Quesa-dill-as!” Thank goodness we had a glossary handy.
What: El Vaquero West
Address:4266 Germanna Highway, Suite 102, Locust Grove (outside Lake of the Woods on State Route 3)
ours: Sunday–Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Prices: Appetizers: $2.50–$7.50 Dinners: $5.75–$13.50
Desserts: $1.95–$3 Children’s menu: $4.15 Beer and wine and mixed drinks are available.
The Scoop: Family-friendly, good service, good food, very economical, parking. Major credit cards accepted.
Kurt Rabin: 540/374-5000