My step-daughter turned us on to a little Mexican restaurant in West Liberty, IA - El Patio. She has her degree in Spanish, has spent time in both Spain and Mexico, and married a Mexican national about three years ago. When they're looking for authentic Mexican food, they make the drive from Iowa City to West Liberty to go to El Patio.
I've been to El Patio a couple three times in the past. The last time I went I took a number of pictures with my new camera phone, but I didn't know how to download the pictures from the hard drive on the phone onto my computer. I accidentally lost all the pictures, but I knew that I'd be back. One recent Sunday, we drove over to West Liberty to meet up with Cindy's daughter and her daughter's little boy, along with Cindy's mother and one of Cindy's sisters from Cedar Rapids.
There's a large Hispanic community in the West Liberty area, largely due to the West Liberty Foods meat processing plant in the area. There are a handful of Mexican-centric businesses in the immediate area and El Patio serves as both a restaurant and as a grocery store for the community. The owner, Cupertino Sosa, had worked in a textile plant in New York City by day and drove a cab at night. Wanting a quieter and safer life for his family, he moved them out to Iowa and settled in nearby Columbus Junction. Looking around at different communities in the area, the Sosa family decided to plant their roots in West Liberty and moved there in 1995. The Sosa's then opened Santa Ana, a Mexican grocery store.
With West Liberty's Hispanic population growing, there was only one Mexican restaurant in the area that served primarily northern Mexican-style food. Sosa, who grew up in the southern part of Mexico near Puebla, saw a need for a new restaurant in West Liberty, only with a different style of Mexican food. He had a number of recipes from his home region that he wanted to share and it turned out that his store had virtually everything to start a Mexican restaurant. In 2002, the Sosa's moved to a new and bigger location just south of the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and Iowa Highway 70 in West Liberty (see map) that could accommodate both a grocery store and a restaurant. El Patio sits on one side of the building and Santa Ana on the other.
Santa Ana grocery store has a number of Mexican spices, fruits and vegetables, and other items so you can make a number of authentic Mexican dishes at home. They also have festive items such as pinatas and other party goods, as well as your normal household goods. They also have Mexican Coca-Cola which many people feel has a better taste than American Coke. I don't drink pop any longer, but looking at the Mexican Coca-Cola sitting in the cooler was certainly tempting.
The restaurant (above right) is on your right as you enter the main door to the building. You got through a set of Western-style swinging doors and you enter a small dining area that can seat 35 to 40 people. It's bright and clean with the main kitchen in the back. El Patio is open 7 days a week - opening at 11 a.m. daily, closing at 8 p.m. Sunday thru Thursday, and staying open until 9 p.m. on the weekends. We pushed a couple tables together near the front of the dining area near the big window that looks out into a brick-walled entry way to the building. As we sat down, a waitress came over with a couple baskets of chips and a couple small bowls of El Patio's wonderful homemade salsa. It's just absolutely fabulous.
El Patio is a full service restaurant with a full menu - including beer and margaritas - so I happily ordered a Sol beer while we looked over the menu. They're especially known for their tacos which are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. My step-son-in-law is particularly fond of the tacos which he says are about as close to the ones he would get back home in Mexico. While I've tried other items on the menu at El Patio, I always seem to come back to getting the tacos when we go there. And this particular visit was no exception.
They have a handful of different meats to choose from to put on their tacos - carne asada (steak), ground beef, spicy beef, chicken, and pork. You can get them American style with cheddar jack cheese and lettuce on top, or get them Mexican style with cilantro, chopped onions and a chunk of avocado on top. I always order mine Mexican style.
This visit to El Patio, I ordered three tacos - spicy beef, carne asada and pork al pastor. In fact, everyone in our party ordered tacos that day. They aren't very big, so most people can easily eat three tacos. You can order them with flour shells if you like, but I always go with the homemade corn shell tacos.
Since everything is made to order and they use fresh ingredients at El Patio, it takes a little longer to get your food than what you'd find at larger Mexican restaurants. But the wait is definitely worth it.
When the food was brought out, this is what my order of tacos looked like. The carne asada is on the left, the spicy beef in the middle, and the pork on the right. In addition to the avocado, cilantro and chopped onions, a fresh lime wedge is provided to squeeze on top of the tacos. It gives them a nice little citrus taste.
My step-daughter asked the waitress in Spanish for a couple of their hot sauces - a spicy green chili verde sauce, and a somewhat spicy red sauce. She brought out a green and red squeeze bottle and my step-daughter poured some of the chili verde sauce on one of her tacos. I immediately reached for the green sauce once she was through with it. It offered a subtle kick at first, then had an excellent forward kick in taste after it settled on your tongue. I joked that I wanted to steal one of the bottles of chile verde to take home with me.
The carne asada was flavorful and tender, as was the pork al pastor. The spicy beef - on its own with no salsa verde - had a wonderful kick in taste. And I certainly love the homemade and fresh soft corn taco shells they use at El Patio.
I made short work of the three tacos I had and the waitress came over to see how we were doing. I ordered up another carne asada taco. The waitress left and came back a couple moments later and she said, "We're out of carne asada for the time being. They're cutting up some beef right now and it should be 15 minutes or so if you'd like to wait." As I said, the food is so fresh at El Patio that they make it to order. I asked if they had any of the pork left and she said that they did. I got another pork al pastor taco. And that was enough. I was full, so full that we didn't even have dinner that evening.
El Patio is one of those little out of the way places that doesn't do a lot of advertising and probably doesn't have to. The quality of the food speaks volumes of how good the place really is. We're blessed to have some pretty good Mexican restaurants in the immediate Quad Cities area, but sometimes its worth the 45 minute drive over to West Liberty to get some of the best Mexican food we've ever had - and that includes food that we've had in Mexico. El Patio has never disappointed us in the past and we're hoping it continues to have great food in the future.