We live in a city where there are numerous very good and authentic Mexican restaurants. I have a good friend who is Hispanic and he swears that - other than his mother's kitchen - the best Mexican food in the Quad Cities comes from El Mexicano, a combination grocery store/meat market/restaurant in Moline. The guys from QC Mexican Food, a web site that features all the Mexican restaurants in the Quad Cities, also think highly of El Mexicano - they called it the top Mexican restaurant in their list of Top Ten area Mexican restaurants.
Roberto Carillo was a Mexican immigrant from Guanajuato who came to the U.S. in 1984 to help pick fruit with his father in a field near Fresno, CA. The 15-year-old Carillo didn't know English and didn't attend school when he first got to the U.S. But Carillo soon learned that the more educated you are, the more you can get out of life.
After getting his temporary resident status, Carillo was contacted by friends in the Quad Cities about a job opportunity at a beef processing plant in the area. He moved to the Quad Cities in 1990 and started to take English language classes held for Mexican immigrants of all ages. By 1995, he was taking classes in American history and he passed his citizenship test later that year.
Carillo continued to work at the beef processing facility, but saw a chance to be able to be his own boss by running a Mexican restaurant. He took classes in food management from Black Hawk College in Moline and graduated in 2005. In February 2006, Carillo quit his job at the beef processing plant to start El Mexicano. His first employees were his wife, his oldest daughter and his brother.
Initially, El Mexicano was just a restaurant. But Carillo found that he could sell Mexican sourced items for a growing Mexican population in the Quad Cities. Over the years, El Mexicano has transformed from a restaurant only establishment to a full service grocery store complete with a meat counter. While the restaurant is still going strong, it now takes up about a third of the total space of El Mexicano.
We tried to go to El Mexicano on an earlier visit, but we found that the restaurant closes at 4:00 p.m. daily. It opens at 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday and is open for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday starting at 8 a.m. This time, we went on a Saturday afternoon for lunch.
El Mexicano is located on Railroad Ave. in Moline, across the tracks from the John Deere Seeding Works. (see map) I have friends who work at John Deere Seeding who get lunch from El Mexicano delivered to them a lot. My one friend told me, "They have monster burritos just full of stuff. I don't know how one person can eat the thing."
Walking into the front door of the deep green building, you enter the grocery store at El Mexicano. A large "L" shaped meat counter was chock full beef, pork, chicken and other Mexican specialty meats. The shelves were filled with colorful packaging of Mexican food items.
The restaurant part of El Mexicano is located on the right side as you walk into the building. It's not a large space - it probably seats about 30 people comfortably - but it didn't seem cramped at all.
We took a seat at a table and a young lady came out to drop off menus. The food items on El Mexicano's menu were certainly authentic with both Spanish and English terms for the foods. The first thing we ordered was some guacamole. It was too cheap to pass up - $3.50 for basically a whole plate of freshly made guacamole. El Mexicano also had a number of Mexican beers to choose from. Cindy got a Negra Modelo while I got a bottle of Sol.
El Mexicano is known for their carnitas - seasoned pulled pork that cooks in its own fat and juices. The young lady told us that Roberto Carillo has a recipe of spices that he adds to the carnitas that gives it a signature taste. The portion was absolutely huge. Refried beans and rice came on the side. Then - for good measure - I also got a barbacoa taco on the side topped with onions and fresh cilantro.
I got some soft corn tortillas to go along with the carnitas. I piled on some of the shredded pork, beans and rice, and topped it off with some guacamole and some of their wonderful chile verde sauce the young lady brought to the table with the chips. The first taco I made, well, the pork was a little dried out. But I rummaged around the carnitas on my plate and found a bunch of more moist pork meat interspersed with bits of cooked fat to give the carnitas their distinctive flavor. The next two tacos were absolutely wonderful.
Cindy went with the tacos. Her daughter is married to a Mexican who knows his way around a kitchen and he is adamant that you need to try the tacos at authentic Mexican restaurants to see if the place is good or not. At El Mexicano they feature ten different types of meat to choose from for tacos - chicken (shredded or grilled), carne asada (steak), beef tongue, carnitas, ground beef, al pastor (pork in a red sauce) and other fillings. They also have pepper slices and Nopales - chunks of cooked paddle cactus.
For her three tacos, she went with grilled chicken, barbacoa and the cactus. She got them all Mexican-style with the chopped onions and cilantro. Refried beans and rice came with her tacos. Since I had a barbacoa taco already and I don't care for chicken tacos all that much, I had a bite of the cactus taco. It had the consistency of a roasted green pepper but with more of a sweeter taste. Cindy had eaten cactus before and she thought the one at El Mexicano was very good.
With the barbacoa taco and three loaded carnitas tacos down me, I still had about half of the pork that they served me left on my plate. I was getting stuffed, but I couldn't quit eating the pork. As I said, the initial amount of pork was rather dry and sort of tough, but everything else under that was moist, tender, flavorful and just simply outstanding. I ate nearly all the pork I had and was wonderfully miserable the rest of the day. I didn't even have dinner that evening because I was still stuffed from the wonderful lunch we had at El Mexicano.
I can't say enough about my meal at El Mexicano - the portions served versus the price paid was outstanding. The authenticity of the food they served was irreproachable. The overall quality of the food was exceptional. Everything I've heard or read about El Mexicano met my expectations. This was simply some of the freshest and finest Mexican food that I've ever had.