What: El Merendero Restaurant
Address and phone: 5443 S. 12th Ave., 294-1522
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays-Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays
What was ordered: Chicken Flautas lunch special ($5.99); Combination #10, Chicken Tostada, Ground Beef Taco and Cheese Enchilada ($7.50); and two limonadas ($1.50) each for a total of $17.87 including tax, well within our Cheap Eats goal of a meal for two for less than $20.
Comments: The parking lot at this South Sider rarely has more than one available spot at lunchtime for good reason.
El Merendero serves dinner-grade Mexican fare in a pleasant though boisterous setting at notably lunch-grade prices.
Though the seafood selections drift out of the Cheap Eats ceiling, a host of generous combination plates can be had for 7 or 8 bucks, and the daily lunch special at $5.99 is the choice of many.
Chips, two types of salsa (one a purée and the other a pico de gallo) and limes arrive at the table soon after you sit down, and the breakneck servers are quick to refill the chip bowl and drinks.
In what works as an excellent way to help the servers more quickly expedite the orders flying out the kitchen, you pay your bill in a little cubby near the kitchen.
We went with the Wednesday lunch special – Chicken Flautas – and were immediately impressed by the moist chicken, the thin, delicately fried tortillas and the portions, which are uniformly generous here. Also of note were the sides of refried beans and rice. A nice topping of good Mexican cheese works good pungent and sweet flavor into the smooth refrieds. As for the rice, my companion hailed the fluffy, canary-hued offering the “best Mexican rice I’ve ever had.”
Our other plate, Combination #10, was equally impressive. The chicken tostada served on a medium-sized fried corn tortilla rather than a small one, and was built along the lines of a Topopo salad, with a faint smear of beans and lots of lettuce, avocado, onions and chicken of the same quality as came in the flautas.
The ground beef taco was also larger than the standard offering and had a nice tang of tomatoes and Mexican cheese to complement the beef. Rounding out the trio was a decent cheese enchilada and the aforementioned excellent rice and beans.
South 12th has some good Mexican eateries, but most are more of the fast-Mex variety – El Gorrion, Los Jarritos, El Potrero, Güero Canelo and BK’s. With a dining room that features tiled floors and comfortable booths, El Merendero is a little more upscale by comparison, along the lines of Los Portales on South Sixth Avenue or Micha’s on South Fourth.
El Merendero can sneak up on you as you head south on 12th, so just keep your eyes peeled on the east side of the avenue for a parking lot filled with cars, and you’ll find your way to good eats.
Service: Tableside service was prompt and friendly.
Children’s menu: Yes
Web site: No
Most recent health inspection: A “good” rating Jan. 15. Critical violations were reported for potentially hazardous foods not held at proper cooling temperature; food separation, packaging, segregation and substitution methods not preventing food and ingredient contamination; food contact surfaces and equipment not cleaned frequently and properly to prevent food contamination; and foods not correctly date marked.