The ballad of ‘El Whatever’

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It’s a well-known fact that I love tacos and Mexican food of all kinds, from modern Mexican such as El Luchador to Puebla style like at El Mariachi to good ol’ Tex-Mex. And there are lots of great places in Louisville for Mexican, from El Molcajete to El Mundo to The Ville Taqueria, each of which has its own spin on what style a taco or Mexican food, in general, takes on.

Ah, but there’s also that pervasive generic style of Mexican restaurant, the ones that seem to be strangely plentiful — indeed, they are everywhere. I’m talking about the places like El Nopal, El Tarasco, El Caporal, all of which are the establishments I refer to collectively as El Whatever.

You know these places: They typically vary only slightly in quality and selection, and they all have insanely cheap lunch specials, as well as a lot of combos. And every one of them has a combo called the Speedy Gonzales, which always — and I’ve never seen this vary — a taco, an enchilada and a choice of rice or refried beans.

But whereas many Mexican places will feature street-style tacos with soft corn shells, cilantro and onions, not to mention seafood and specialty dishes, El Whatever menus pretty much stick to a formula. It’s a formula that apparently has become a mainstay, considering how many of these Mexican restaurants exist and thrive.

When I first started eating Mexican food (well, Mexican food that didn’t come from Taco Tico), the only choices were Chi Chi’s or Tumbleweed. Yes, those chicken burritos at Chi Chi’s were a go-to for me in the late 1980s, and I went through a phase in the ’90s during which I probably ate 10 Tumbleweed enchiladas a week. Even they had their own styles and flavors.

But then El Whatever trickled into my life. I can’t remember exactly when it happened; it was as if one day I was driving down the street, and they were everywhere. I can’t even remember which one I tried first, or what year it was. They just were.

Now, before you think I’m being critical, let me make something perfectly clear: I eat at El Whatever a lot. My friend Jerry loves El Tarasco, and he’s taken me there for more lunches than I can count over the last six or seven years. We might as well buy stock in the place, and the truth is they have a lunch special there that I could eat every week: it’s the crabmeat quesadilla. At lunchtime, it’s $7.25 — not as cheap as the standard $5.25 combos, but still cheap — and these things come with seafood, onions and bell peppers spilling out everywhere. I always get mine with Spanish rice, which I douse in El Yucateco hot sauce. It fills me nicely every time.

This particular El Whatever also has a daily $4 lunch. I mean, you can’t get lunch for four bucks at most fast food places, or at least not a substantial lunch. And most El Whatevers have a similar deal.

I’m similarly cool with El Nopal (although I prefer Tarasco if I’m opting for El Whatever food) — you can get a fine shrimp cocktail there, and the one on Zorn Avenue makes one heck of a michelada. El Nopal also has the crabmeat quesadilla, but without the peppers — which just means you get more crab.

One of my favorite quirks about El Nopal is that you can’t order your tacos with cilantro instead of lettuce. I’ve asked that question there a dozen times in a dozen different ways, and the reaction is always the same: a puzzled look, followed by, “No. But I can bring you a side of cilantro.”

So, I order three tacos a la carte with no lettuce, along with a side of cilantro, which comes in large quantities in a bowl. I simply apply it myself and take home what’s left for other uses. I don’t understand why they don’t want to put the cilantro on the tacos themselves, but again, who am I to complain?

Perhaps the only drawback of the El Whatever restaurants is that I’m not so sure the food is terribly healthful — I’m pretty sure it’s all cooked in lard, because otherwise how could it taste so darn good? Jerry gets the chicken fajitas at Tarasco religiously, and for years, we would leave lunch and basically have a race to see who had to go to the bathroom first. Still, I keep going back. I just like it.

Of course, my girlfriend and I went to an El Whatever in Nashville a couple of years ago, and it was not only the worst El Whatever of all time, it was probably the worst restaurant of all time, period. So, if you go to Nashville, just get hot chicken. Don’t risk it. Like many things in life, El Whatever apparently is better in Louisville.