It takes a certain bold spirit and lack of risk aversion to open a new restaurant during a pandemic when, at best, restaurants face an extraordinary burden of regulation for our health and safety.
That didn’t slow down the folks at El Mundo, though. Not only did they open their second restaurant — El Mundo Highlands — last month, but they did it in the oversize (4,000 square-foot, four-levels) space that long housed Asiatique and much more briefly its successor, Flavour Restaurant.
I got only a quick glimpse inside during a visit to pick up takeout lunch, but it’s still sprawling and stylish, with a large main-floor bar that looks like a great place to have a drink.
I’ll get back there eventually for that drink and dinner — to its credit, but let’s get this COVID-19 thing out of the way first, mmkay? Meanwhile, I’m doing curbside or takeout, and I can tell you that El Mundo Highlands is handling those important functions remarkably well.
For dining in, El Mundo’s website clearly outlines expectations and is pretty insistent about our following the rules, and it goes into quite a bit of detail about that. Summing up: Make a reservation, wash and sanitize, wear your mask unless you are actively eating and drinking and stay seated. Arrive on time — you have a 10-minute window. Get your menu digitally if you can.
Also, you have 1 hour, 15 minutes to dine in, starting at the time of your reservation. Yes, this is strict, but, the website points out: “Unfortunately, for dine-in to remain financially viable for us as a small restaurant, we need to turn these tables at that rate in order to make it by on razor-thin margins.”
That’s fair. Don’t gripe, follow the rules, enjoy your meal.
Takeout orders must be placed and paid for online, including a mandatory 18% tip. A separate pickup entrance admits you — one person at a time — to a small, spanking-clean lobby where your bagged meal will be ready for you to pick up without coming into contact with anyone. Don’t come in until your assigned time, and don’t come in if someone else is already in there. “Thank you for your continued support,” the website adds. “It means the world to us!”
In these troubled times, I truly believe that.
The online menu remains limited because social distancing requirements make it difficult to craft an extensive bill of fare in the kitchen. It does cover a range of Mexican favorites, though, and all the dishes we tasted still show the creative touches that made me love the original El Mundo ever since it arrived on Frankfort Avenue some 25 years ago.
A half-dozen appetizers range from $2.25 (for chips with two salsas) to $8 (for a small caesar salad). Queso is made with three Mexican cheeses, tomatoes and a mild chipotle kick. The app list also includes two choices of bottled hot sauce (both $5.99) and a $6 set of attractive coasters.
Not counting the $11 large Caesar, a dozen dinner entrées are from $11.95 (for a quesadilla) to $15.95 (for carnitas, fish tacos, or bake-at-home nachos for two). Most of the entrées are available with your choice of meat or meatless filling including chicken, pork, bison, vegan chorizo, beans, spicy beans or cheese. There’s also a wide selection of sides and a single takeout dessert, cheesecake ($8).
The takeout beverage list includes several Mexican soft drinks ($3) and a short list of frozen margaritas ($11 to $22).
We started with a huge paper bag of crisp, yellow corn chips ($2.25) and a generous tub of textured, green salsa that showed a good balance of tomatillo and jalapeño flavors that pushed through its warm but not fiery heat.
A chile relleno ($12.95) was built on a broad, dark-green poblano that picked up a hint of smoke from fire roasting. It comes stuffed with your choice of the fillings, blended with jack cheese, topped with green chile sauce, baked and served with El Mundo’s good Mexican rice and beans. We opted for the vegan chorizo filling because I think the modern development of vegetarian meats is really interesting, and I’m generally willing to try one to see how it worked out. I was impressed. It comes in small, firm, rather chewy dice — possibly wheat-based seitan — with a spicy, aromatic flavor that came close to the real thing.
The carnitas plate ($15.95) is fashioned from pastured pork that’s deliciously spiced, roasted, then flash-fried. The pork was cut into small chunks with crisp, charred edges from the roasting oven and boasted a delicious juicy, creamy character almost like confit. It was mixed with strips of well-grilled red onion and accompanied with fresh and clean spring mix lettuce, shredded cheese, tubs of tomatillo salsa and pico de gallo and two good-quality, flour tortillas (corn is also an option).
Both dishes came with excellent refrito-style black beans and delicious Mexican-style rice, aromatic with smoky chili-pepper heat and cumin.
An exceptional meal for two came to $40.49 including the mandatory 18% tip; I added a few bucks more.
El Mundo Highlands
1767 Bardstown Road