It's possible to appreciate El Mariachi Loco, a small Mexican restaurant on Manchester's Main Street, for what it doesn't have as much as for what it does offer -- tasty tacos, burritos, mole dishes, enchiladas and a few regional specialties. Many Mexican restaurants are what you might call festive. Blaring juke boxes with horn-heavy norteno music, prominent TVs showing operatic telenovelas, sombreros and bright tissue paper out the wazoo, maybe a wandering band of mildly predatory mariachi musicians, or even a roving balloon artist for the kids, not to mention those hissing and sizzling plates of fajitas. It can be the kind of sensory overload that can give palpitation to the most delicate of us. That's why I found myself surprised and appreciative of the almost monastic calm at El Mariachi Loco last week. There were no mariachis. There was no loco.
Call it the atmosphere of no atmosphere. I was the only patron there. I could hear the whir of traffic on the street. These were all good, in my book. But there are those who will want a little more razzle-dazzle from their Mexican restaurants. Which isn't to say that Mariachi Loco doesn't have frills. There are touches of bright Mexican color, and perhaps the place buzzes more on a busy night. Though the absence of beer and tequila may have a lot to do with dialing down the party potential. The food, though not alarmingly spicy, is the place where one looks for zing. And that's where you'll find it at Mariachi Loco.
A meal starts with chips and salsa, as one expects. Noteworthy here is the presence of three different salsas. A single bowl of fresh tomato salsa is great. But one welcomes the addition of a tangy green tomatillo salsa and a smooth smoky red sauce.
The menu at Mariachi Loco has seafood (shrimp and fish mostly); combo plates with specials like chile relleno, mole, and a selection of fajitas, tacos, enchiladas and burritos; and a breakfast menu and kids dishes, as well as weekend specials like pozole (hearty hominy soup). Tacos are about $3 a pop; burritos are in the $10 or $11 zone. Most specials are between $13 and $16, with fajita plates costing a few bucks more. Treats like flautas (rolled and fried mini tacos) and churros (fried dough sticks) are also on offer.
A glass of horchata — a drink made with rice, milk and cinnamon — served to cool down the palate after that spicy smoky salsa. The horchata ($2.50) is a little like drinking a melted vanilla milk shake inside a scented candle shop. Very perfumy.
An order of tamales Oaxaquenos ($4) presented an interesting regional flourish. I've never been a team-tamale guy though, having always found the stuffed corn flour creations to be a little dense. This one, wrapped in a corn husk and stuffed with sweet mole chicken, wasn't light. I found myself digging out the shredded pieces of chicken and leaving much of the corn flour exterior.
But my visit was about the tacos. A plate of three tacos — carnitas (bbq pork), al pastor (grilled pork) and picadillo (seasoned ground beef) — was satisfying. The tacos arrived double-layered with corn tortillas (you can ask for flour if you like), which made it easy to wield without having much breakage or spillage of the stuffings. A few of the tacos had just cilantro and chopped onion in addition to the meat. The carnitas also included shredded lettuce, bits of cheese and a few diced tomatoes. They were all juicy and nicely seasoned. A squirt of lime juice and some of the salsa brightened things.
El Mariachi Loco is definitely not for everyone. But fans of humble and low-key Mexican food with authentic touches will be happy to find it.
El Mariachi Loco
697 Main St., Manchester, (860) 643-5542, closed Mondays