West Valley City » Most of us find ourselves spending the work week in some sort of concrete jungle where our mission is about efficiency and profit, not necessarily the quality of life. So when the lunch hour beckons and we have anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes of freedom to sate hunger, stretch our legs and rejuvenate ourselves, logistically, we have to stay put close to our desks.
The places to eat in our jungles are often familiar (the big-box joint), few (did you see the line?) and far between (hoagies, again?). Which is why a place like El Paisa Grill stands out.
First, there's the straightforward flavor of the food. No grease to cover up sub-par raw materials, and a large menu filled with recognizable as well as lesser-known dishes. Then, there's the relative value of the menu's offerings. But even if this busy, still under-the-radar restaurant weren't mercifully placed among the concrete commercial jungle, it would still stand out for its honest food and character.
The house-made guacamole ($7.99) is smooth and creamy. The menu stated that it would be made fresh table-side, but instead came out from the kitchen already made with tortilla chips arranged on top, as if it were one huge guacamole bloom meant for sharing.
As we dipped and crunched, the lone lounge singer in the back of the dining room sang soaring melodies in Spanish. Backed up by his laptop DJ software, this fellow let each and every diner know that he loved us "just the way we are."
At lunch, it's a busy venue, as El Paisa draws a diverse clientele through location and word of mouth -- real world and digital. People on time constraints and with huge appetites adore braised cochinita pibil ($12.99) and taco platters ($8.99), or one or two crunchy tostadas topped with tender, lime-saturated shrimp and avocado ($4.99 each). The tacos come double wrapped with house-made corn tortillas, barely twice the size of a silver dollar. Inside, it's your choice of carne asada or a respectable lengua (tongue) that you top with chopped fresh onions and cilantro.
There are some disappointments on the huge menu. Like the mojarra fritta (whole fried fish, $11.99) which tastes decent and nothing more.
But the molcajete supreme ($22.99) makes up for all. Intended to serve two, I've seen hungry individuals polish off one plate and likewise a trio of dainty ladies split one. Consider it a version of surf (shrimp) and turf (chicken and beef with grilled chiles and spring onions) complete with a tomatillo sauce, all served in a hellfire hot cauldron to great function and effect.
Chiles rellenos ($8.99) are deep green poblano chiles roasted and stuffed with a mild, snow-white cheese. Once battered and fried, El Paisa's version is slathered with a sauce that's Technicolor in hue and redolent of canned tomatoes and sweet bell peppers.
Most entrees come with two sides and a choice of tortillas. Opt for the homemade corn tortillas (griddled), as recommended by our server who also led us down the path toward a better tequila to spike our margaritas ($7), and a refreshing grapefruit-and-lime infused Cantarito ($7). The latter drink comes in an earthenware, handleless jug rimmed with salt. The full liquor menu refers to the bar area on the south side of the restaurant -- a huge venue that when full, no doubt, provides a better audience for the karaoke stage in the dining room.
Seafood is done pretty well here, too. There's the dramatic Botanas de Camarones ($12.99), whole, shell- and head-on gulf shrimp simmered in a chipotle sauce that's borderline spicy and thick. Twist the heads off, suck out the juicy innards and then attend to the tail that requires minimal peeling. Part of the joy is licking your fingers throughout the process. A cocktail is good with this. An ice cold Modelo Especial ($7) is even better.
If you happen to be here for dinner, all the better, since the slower dinner crowd means a slower pace to service. The tabletop will be full of empty plates waiting to be taken away to make room for entrees, but the beer and drinks will be replenished in a timely manner as you watch Cruz Azul get closer to the CONCACAF Champions League final on the television.
The restaurant might be located in the concrete jungle, but at dinner, you'll have plenty of time.
Fresh ingredients give edge to stylish El Paisa
Overall » HH
Food » HH
Mood » Hhj
Service » HHhj
Noise » bb
Straightforward flavors without the greasy heft. Braised meats like cochinita pibil are bright and tangy, as are the crunchy tostadas topped with tender shrimp. For huge appetites there are burritos, but even better are the molcajetes -- sizzling cauldrons of meat and tomatillo sauce -- large enough for two at this restaurant with a full bar. Sip a Cantarito with your meal and take in the live music.
Where » 2126 S. 3200 West, West Valley City, 801-973-6660
Hours » Monday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full liquor
Corkage » No (outside bottles not allowed)
Reservations » No
Children's menu » No
Takeout » Yes
Outdoors dining » None
On-site parking » Yes
Wheelchair accessible » Yes
Credit Cards » Yes