Muscatine, Iowa is a city of about 23,000 people and approximately 1 out of 6 residents are Hispanic. Years ago, migrant farm workers from Mexico made the trek to the Mississippi River valleys around Muscatine to work in the melon fields. Many of them stayed in Muscatine and put down roots that have lasted for generations. Because of the large Latino population in the area, a number of very good Mexican restaurants have thrived in the area for years. One place that I knew about, but had never been to until recently, is a small Mexican tienda/restaurante by the name of El Olmito.
Felix Calderon was 15 years old when his father moved the family from extreme southern Texas to the Muscatine area. The younger Calderon grew up in the area, married a local lady by the name of Norma, and settled into life in and around the Muscatine area. The only problem was that in order to get authentic Mexican spices, chiles, and other food stuff, he and his wife would have to drive into Chicago on a regular basis to go to Mexican food stores. One day, Calderon told his wife that they should open a store that would cater to Muscatine's Hispanic population. Nearly 30 years ago, they opened El Olmito (the little elm) which paid homage to his South Texas hometown of Olmito.
At first, the family sold food stuff and clothing before deciding to start making authentic Mexican food in a small restaurant in the back of their store. A fire about 15 years ago displaced the business and they soon moved into their present day location at the corner of 5th and Mulberry in downtown Muscatine. (see map)
El Olmito is not very big. In fact, more floor space is devoted to the handful of tables in the back of the place than the amount of food that they sell in the grocery store part of the building. It's not fancy in the least. There's no singing waiters, there's no bright tapestries on the walls, there's no alcohol served at El Olmito. It's pretty "plain Jane". But you know what? Those are usually the best places to get good authentic Mexican food.
A number of Mexican spices, sauces and other food items are on display on a double sided shelving unit in the middle of the restaurant. Along one wall were bags of spices and other items for authentic Mexican food. Sliding glass doored refrigerators were full of bottles of Mexican pop, juices and water. A freezer had a slew of different types of meat. El Olmito wasn't as big as El Mexicano in Moline, IL or El Patio in West Liberty, IA - two other Mexican grocery stores that happen to serve outstanding Mexican food (click on the links to see the entries on those two places) - but they seemed to be doing a brisk business while we were in there.
We took a seat at a table and picked up a couple menus that were on the table. While the list of food isn't extensive - tacos, tostadas, tortas, gorditas, burritos and individual platters - the types of fillings they had were rather impressive. Including carne asada (steak), ground beef, carnitas (pork), barbacoa (barbecued beef), and chicken that you'd find at any Mexican restaurant worth their salt, they also had interesting fillings such as chicharron (fried pork rinds), ceviche (fresh fish marinated in limes), buche (pork stomach), guisado (chipotle-spiced chicken), tripe (beef stomach), lengua (beef tongue) and a number of other interesting (but somewhat unappetizing - to me) selections.
My step-daughter's husband is a Mexican national and he says that the best way to find out if a restaurant is good is to just try the tacos. And I went that route. I got an al pastor (pork) taco, a steak taco, a ground beef taco and a barbacoa taco. Cindy decided to get the taco platter - three tacos with a side of refried beans and rice. She got two chicken tacos and a steak taco. For drinks, I got a bottle of water out of the cooler and Cindy got a "coquito" - a small bottle (7 ounces) of Mexican Coca-Cola.
We waited less than 10 minutes for the guy who took our order to come back with our taco plates. The first thing that I noticed was that compared to other authentic Mexican restaurants, the corn taco shells were a little bigger and were generously filled with grilled meats, pico de gallo, and fresh cilantro. Getting four tacos is generally no big problem for me. I could tell it may be a problem to finish all of the ones I ordered.
Cindy's tacos were as big as mine and half the plate was filled with an ample helping of Mexican rice and refried beans. "Oh my gosh," she exclaimed as the plate was set in front of her. "This is a lot of food."
After taking the requisite pictures of the food, I grabbed the barbacoa taco first. I squeezed out some of the chile verde sauce they had on the table (they also had a spicy pepper sauce, too) on to the taco and took a bite. The taste was well, exquisite. It was outstanding. And it was damned spicy! I couldn't tell if it was the barbacoa spices or from the green salsa. But it wasn't overpowering to the point where all you could taste was the hotness of the spice. The fresh pico de gallo and cilantro gave it a cooling taste quality. This was simply a great taco.
And the rest of the tacos were equally as good. Cindy was using the green salsa on her tacos and we were whipping through the bottle pretty quickly. I determined that either the barbacoa - on its own - was spicy, or I'd gotten used to the spiciness of the chile verde sauce on the subsequent tacos that I had. Each of the tacos had their own signature taste and I couldn't even begin to tell you which one I liked the best out of the four that I had.
Cindy, however, told me that she should have gotten two steak tacos and a chicken taco. She said she didn't care for the chicken tacos. "It's good, don't get me wrong," she was explaining to me. "But they use both dark and white meat for the chicken. I would have liked it to be all white meat." She said it was far from a deal breaker for her, but she liked the steak taco better.
After I finished - barely - my tacos, I tweeted out a picture of my plate of tacos to Brandon and Jake, the two guys behind the QC Mexican Food web site that highlights Mexican restaurants in and around the greater Quad Cities area. I said, "This is AWESOME! You've got to come to El Olmito!" And I say that to anyone reading this. It's not fancy, the decor is not ornate, and the service is pretty basic. But the food is wonderful. And there's a lot of it for a pretty good price. El Olmito is one of the best Mexican restaurants that I've ever encountered.