Chilaquiles with steak, hot sauce and pico de gallo.
I'd rather eat a bland burrito any day of the week than choke back an overcooked meat patty on a corn-syrup-laced bun. But I'd really prefer to sit down and eat real Mexican food, or even Tex-Mex, that's locally prepared and offers a wider array of dishes. So I was happy that El Burrito Loco, which also operates a restaurant in Oregon and a lunchtime food cart at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Main Street on the Square, opened a location on the far west side of Madison near the corner of Old Sauk and High Point roads.
The new location is casual, located in a strip mall. Of course, on the far west side of Madison, almost everything is now a strip mall. But there's a stone tile floor, colorful tablecloths and exceptional service -- all of which make the ambience warm and inviting. Although I've yet to see the dining room full, the restaurant does take reservations, which may be helpful for larger parties, because the space has only 10 or 15 tables.
For me, the ingredients that set Mexican food apart from other cuisines are the chili peppers. As much as I love guacamole, it's the peppers that determine whether I'll return to a restaurant or not. Happily, several of the dishes I've eaten at El Burrito Loco brought some heat. The Enchiladas Sinaloa, with grilled shrimp and onions and topped with a green sauce, were actually spicier than their menu description as "mild" led me to expect. The mole enchiladas also had a rich and fairly complex sauce, though in that case, I'd have liked more zing.
One of my favorite lunch specials are the chilaquiles, fried corn tortillas and pulled chicken in a creamy cheese sauce, topped with a green tomatillo sauce. This is a particularly creamy and mild preparation of the dish, and I enjoyed it even more when I added an extra side of hot sauce. But the tomatillo sauce was tangy and strong, and I found myself craving it again later. For people who like fresh chiles in a meal -- not just dried and sauced -- it's worth noting that a fresh pico de gallo comes with many dishes, and the kitchen doesn't skimp on the chopped jalapeño.
For people who seek milder flavor, a great choice is the taco platter, which can be ordered with any combination of steak, grilled chicken, chorizo, barbacoa (slow-cooked beef), or carnitas (slow-braised pork). None of these fillings were particularly spicy-hot, but all were flavorful and topped with fresh cilantro. Also in the mild zone are fajitas, quesadillas and taco salad. There's also a full roster of chimichangas, burritos and enchiladas, plus other offerings not usually seen at the food cart -- two soups (cilantro and chicken tortilla) and a poblano pepper platter.
The children's menu includes tacos, quesadillas, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and even cheese fries. The options are all around $5, and include fountain soda, milk or juice. For the record, my kids, for whom chili peppers are mostly intolerable, ordered red enchiladas from the regular menu and liked them just fine.
Most entrees cost around $10; daily lunch specials $7 or $8. And an ample side of the impressive guacamole is just three bucks. Given that many fast-food Mexican options are no cheaper -- and are definitely less fresh and less flavorful -- why not pick El Burrito Loco?
One drawback of the restaurant's smaller size is that there isn't much privacy, and the festive music competes with the noisy hum of an ice machine. Sitting in the back, I found that kind of distracting. But maybe I'd have noticed it less had I ordered one of the alcoholic beverages prepared at the makeshift bar. El Burrito Loco serves a selection of domestic and Mexican beers, margaritas made with a limited choice of tequilas, sangria and a few wines and cocktails.
And in the grand scope of things, the noisy bar machines weren't that big of a deal. Because I like pretty much everything else about the place. Especially the food.