If there's one thing I'm sure to bring along before entering an Orlando-area Mexican restaurant, it's a bellyful of lowered expectations. It's not an elitist posture, but rather one founded on experiential forays into Tex-Mex hotbeds out West. Everything from their access to the finest chili peppers to their masa preparation reeks of superiority, resulting in indisputably toothsome dishes. So, with hopes not yet dashed, I headed out to El Palenque in East Orlando anticipating another ho-hum dining affair, and though in many ways that's precisely what I got, a few pleasant surprises were thrown in the mix to make the trip an all-round pleasant outing.
The restaurant is named after the Mayan archeological site as well as a cockfighting ring (El Palenque's logo incorporates a fighter cock). A large mural of the Mayan ruins dominates the interior, but a series of smaller paintings created by the assistant cook are also worth a look, each illustration depicting a scene of a cockfight and the ancillary goings-on.
From the looks of the sopa azteca ($4.99), it didn't seem the ol' rooster put up much of the fight. Shreds of chicken with corn, celery, carrots, queso and crunchy tortilla strips satisfied. Ask for two spoons, as the bowl is big enough for sharing. The red sauce staining the antojito-sized ground beef enchilada ($2.99) added enough zest to justify ordering it again. Carnitas, a popular filling for many dishes offered here, is made with pork that's roasted out back in a marinade of mojo, oranges and Coke. Stuff it inside a thick corn gordita ($3.99) and you've got yourself a substantial starter. Grilled beef, conversely, made for an insipid nosh, needy of some of their homemade serrano pepper hot sauce. If you're especially famished, doughy, crispy chimichangas ($8.99) will gratify. The two bloated rolls fried in peanut oil ooze with cheese and are served with refried beans and particularly flavorful yellow rice cooked in chicken broth.
The real star of the meal was the three-pepper ranchero sauce slathered all over the bisteck ($12.99). The beef was a little tough, but the internal heat and savory smack generated by the sauce brought back memories of meals at Café Pasqual's in Santa Fe. The steak itself is a considerable slab, but I can only imagine how wondrous a meal this would've been with a better cut of beef.
Considering they're made in-house, desserts didn't live up to expectations. Flan Napolitano ($2.99) had the proper consistency, but the custard was largely flavorless and lacked a deep caramel infusion. Tres leches cake ($5) wasn't very creamy at all and was too dense and heavy to resemble traditional three-milk cake. The flavor, in fact, bore a resemblance to Publix birthday cake.
A bar in the middle of the restaurant is a draw for thirsty UCF students ' then again, the entire restaurant is a popular destination for college students and their families. If you're up for a beverage of the traditional, nonalcoholic kind, try a glass of homemade tamarindo. The tart liquefied tamarind is combined with sugar for an unexpectedly palatable and refreshing drink. So while it may be true that I came here with a bellyful of lowered expectations, I wound up leaving with a bellyful of optimism.