There are times when I go to a restaurant where the expectations are high and the food is not all that good. Then there are times when I visit a place where the expectations are not as great that completely blows me away. I had the latter experience recently during our trip to Columbus, OH at a Mexican restaurant by the name of El Vaquero.
El Vaquero is an 11-location chain in and around the Columbus area. El Vaquero means "the cowboy" in Spanish and the motif of El Vaquero is styled after a northern Mexican ranch. The menu is one of the largest I've ever encountered in a Mexican restaurant and it offers a number of different Mexican specialties. They have the usual beef, chicken and combination entrees. But they also offer seafood and a number of house specialties. One other thing they do at El Vaquero is offer the customer to "mix and match" their own combinations. And they also have a number of vegetarian entrees to choose from.
We'd gotten into Columbus, got checked into the hotel and ended up going to The Varsity Club near the Ohio State University campus to get a few beers before we decided where to go for dinner. I've found on these trips that when you're with a group of people and there's not much of a consensus as where to go to dinner, it's best to just go with the flow and hope for the best. The pizza at The Varsity Club looked good, but a couple people didn't want pizza. There's a Damon's Ribs not far from the place and my friend Scott was sort of up for that. OK, we can go. I've had Damon's Ribs before and they're not that bad. Not that great - but not that bad.
We were standing around finishing our beers talking with one of the managers from The Varsity Club who was off duty and drinking a beer with her boyfriend at the bar. She said, "Where are you going for dinner?"
Scott said, "I think we're going to go check out Damon's."
She said, "Oh, honey. Wait a minute. That Damon's over there isn't all that great. There's a number of other better places in the area to eat than Damon's."
She asked, "Do you guys like Mexican?" We all said we did. She said, "There's a place just down the road from Damon's on the opposite side of the street called El Vaquero. It's got the best Mexican food in town. But go to the one over here on Olentangy River Road. There's a bunch of 'em around town, but that one is the best of them all."
So, our dinner plans changed just like that. When we told the ladies that we were going to get Mexican instead of ribs they all voiced their pleasure over that.
Now, I'm always a little leery of people who claim that something's the "best" in town. When we pulled up to the restaurant on Olentangy River Road (see map) there were a lot of cars in the parking lot. That was a good sign. Entering the restaurant, it had the typical Mexican decor - lots of stucco on the walls with lighted beer signs all over the place. It was sort of loud and manic in the place, but it was still inviting. In short, it looked like any other Mexican restaurant we've been to. We got our menus along with chips and salsa. I was hoping this place didn't suck.
Along with a Dos Equis Amber beer for me, we ordered up a pitcher of El Vaquero's house margaritas. The chips were OK, but the salsa was very good. The house margaritas weren't bad, either. In fact, they were pretty damn good.
The menu is so vast and varied that I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted. They had so many specialty dishes on the menu that I knew I couldn't just get a chimichanga or a burrito for dinner. One thing that stuck out was something called a Birria Estilo Jalisco. It was shredded machaca beef with a red Jalisco sauce served with rice, refried beans and pico de gallo. Soft shell flour tacos came with the plate so you could make your own fajita-style tacos. That sounded really good.
They also had a carnitas (pork) dinner on the menu, along with Zarape - marinated strips of steak or chicken, paired with ground pork sausage and topped with mozzarella cheese and served fajitas style. They also had "Fajitas del Mar" - grilled shrimp and scallop fajitas. I'd never had scallops on fajitas before and that sounded rather intriguing. A lot of stuff sounded great. But one thing caught my eye - fish tacos.
They grill three soft corn tacos and fill them with fish and mango pico de gallo, then put a dollop of chipotle cream sauce on top. The only question I had was if the fish was breaded or unbreaded. Breaded fish tacos are always a deal breaker for me.
When the waiter came around to take our order, I asked him how they prepared their fish for the tacos. His English skills weren't very good, but I was able to figure out they were grilled and not deep fat fried. Sold!
It wasn't long after we all ordered - well less than 10 minutes - when our food showed up at the table. While my fish tacos weren't overly big, they had ample grilled white fish in the shell. From the first bite, oh man! I was in heaven. The taste sensations of the grilled fish, the fresh corn tortilla shell, the mango pico de gallo and, most importantly, the chipotle cream sauce were just out of this world. Actually, I believe the somewhat spicy and smoky flavored chipotle cream sauce is what made the tacos so good. I've had fish tacos before, but I never had that many taste explosions in my mouth with each bite. I added a couple drops of Cholula to the tacos to give them even more of a zippy taste.
Similarly, everyone at the table agreed that their selections were "very good" to "excellent". I made short work of my three fish tacos and drank another beer while everyone finished their meal. Cindy gave me a bite of her chile relleno. It was had a smoky taste to it and was very good, as well. But I was digging the afterglow of my fish tacos.
I went into El Vaquero with an open mind and an empty stomach. I hoped the place would be OK. It was better than OK, it was outstanding. It was some of the best - if not THE best - fish tacos I've ever had in my life. I've got to figure out how they make that chipotle cream sauce. It was what made those tacos fabulous. We never did see the manager back at The Varsity Club to thank her for turning us on to El Vaquero. But I'm sure she knew that we liked it. It was a much better choice than Damon's would have ever been.