I have written about the preponderance of Mexican restaurants that have curiously similar menus, many of them going by the name “El” something or other (El Nopal, El Tarasco, etc.) I dubbed those restaurants collectively as “El Whatever,” and included pretty much any in which you can order a Speedy Gonzalez combo for lunch.
There are exceptions (El Mariachi, for instance, is different and far better than any standard El Whatever), but to some extent, my formula works. Apparently, there could be some wiggle room that I previously was unaware of.
My friend Butch has for some time been bragging on a restaurant in Corydon, Indiana, about 20 miles west of Louisville, called El Nopalito. If El Nopal translates to “the cactus,” El Nopalito, then, would translate to “the little cactus.” So, I teased Butch and told him his restaurant was just a smaller El Nopal.
Still, he persisted.
I finally caved, and drove the 20 miles to get what I assumed would be exactly the same fare I can get at the Ramada Inn on Zorn Avenue (that’s an El Nopal, if you’re scoring at home). My visit to El Nopalito started out with the usual — the décor, the vibe of the place, etc., all seemed about the same.
Chips and salsa came to the table, pretty standard, although the salsa did seem unusually fresh and tasty for an El Whatever. And then we ordered margaritas. Now, I’d never, to my memory, had a decent margarita at an El Whatever — usually just mix and slush, with very little tequila.
But El Nopalito’s were different. For just $2.99 on Sunday, they actually taste made to order. And they didn’t skimp on the key ingredient (tequila), either. Heck, for the price, they weren’t all that far behind the vaunted margs at El Mundo (which is another El Whatever exception, in a big way).
Then it came time to order food; Butch ordered carnitas, while his wife Jane got a veggie dish. My girlfriend Cynthia ordered chimichangas. I had seen a post on the El Nopalito Facebook page about “street tacos,” but I pored over the actual menu and found no mention there. I knew I had Butch right where I wanted him — these Corydon folks clearly don’t know what a street taco is, and I imagined some sad taco in a flour tortilla, piled with boring iceberg lettuce.
“Do you have street tacos?” I asked our server. He answered in the affirmative. They come in threes if you get the meal, or you can get them a la carte. I decided to play along and get the full meal for $11. Now, to say El Nopalito has street tacos requires some clarification — you’re not going to get barbacoa or lengua there. No, it’s pretty much chicken or beef.
But, sure enough, when the tacos came out, they were made with fried corn tortillas, doubled up, and the meat was topped with fresh cilantro and chopped onions. The traditional lime wedges made the cut. I’d never seen this at an El Whatever. Never ever. And, while every other El Whatever experience I’d had meant a taco with bland chicken that was usually overcooked, my tacos were piled with grilled chicken, the same stuff you get when you order fajitas for $18.
I ate and I ate and I ate, and I barely finished the tacos, while I couldn’t come close to conquering the huge servings of rice and beans. Butch let me try one of the big chunks of marinated pork he’d been served and, I have to admit, it was well marinated, not overcooked, and pretty delicious.
So when our server returned with our bills, I confronted him. “What the El is going on here??? Spill it!” I wanted to say to him. But I was more diplomatic.
“Are you owned by the same people that own El Nopal?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why is this one different? I can’t get street-style tacos at any of the El Nopals I’ve been to,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s the same menu,” he insisted, and walked away.
I thought I was being punked. Maybe it’s something about the “little” designation. Maybe that’s code for El Nopalito being a “little” different. Another El Nopalito opened recently in Floyds Knobs, far closer to Louisville. I may have to do some more investigating — involving tacos, of course.
My work is never done.