Any Little Rock Mexican food enthusiast worth his/her salt already knows that some of the finest south-of-the-border cuisine is readily found south-of-the-630. Southwest Little Rock is a beloved section of town that any resident anxious to explore the more authentic (and notably more affordable) side of Mexican cuisine will wisely visit often.
Those same taqueria aficionados have likely driven down the strip of Rodney Parham Road housing Taqueria El Palenque dozens of times without even noticing it existed. Its placement within this small shopping complex — more likely known for Layla's — does not exactly allow the small Mexican restaurant to jump out at travelers zipping by on the nearby busy street. It may be hidden from view, but once you've eaten there, it's not likely that you'll be passing it by again without your stomach noticing.
On our first visit, perusing El Palenque's menu, it did not take long to determine what we'd be ordering, being immediately drawn to the prospects of a plump, weighty, al pastor burrito ($5.99). Ordering this was a wise decision, as it was certainly one of the better iterations of burritos we've discovered around Little Rock. The components are nothing unexpected, but each part works together to elevate the whole. The soft flour tortilla was tender and chewy, but sturdy enough to support its insides. Most notably, the pork and the Spanish rice were exceptionally good. This rice was a bright orange, well seasoned and rich with tomato and onion. The marinated pork was juicy and tender, spiced with ancho chile and adobo seasoning. The pork was suitably complemented by cooling elements within: white cheese, sour cream, freshly shredded lettuce, and chopped tomato. Here was a burrito that could hold its own in any part of the country, proving that Little Rock is no stranger to quality Mexican fare.
We also were enticed by the spinach and mushroom quesadilla ($6.99). Here you'll find a vegetarian dish that leaves no one yearning for the inclusion of proteins. The quesadilla was not the typical flattened, thin version you may be used to. Instead, El Palenque's take on the classic quesadilla finds a large flour tortilla rolled and stuffed full, then sliced on the bias. This creates several handheld pieces of bulging quesadilla, perfect for dipping in either of their two house-made salsas. It was engorged with creamy white, melted cheese, whose rich saltiness was at the forefront of the quesadilla's flavor. Caramelized, slightly sweet bell pepper, sautéed spinach, and mushrooms rounded out this magnificent dish.
Subsequent visits have caused us to be enamored with their take on the chimichanga ($6.99). It's a large flour tortilla, stuffed full of meat (we typically prefer carne asada), with tomato, onion, cilantro and queso fresco. The whole thing is then deep fried until crispy. It's topped off with a white queso sauce that's smooth, creamy, and rich, and adds a good deal of flavor to the deep-fried delight. It's perfect when topped with their tangy, sweet and spicy salsa verde. A finer chimichanga we've yet to taste. It comes with a side of soft rice and well-prepared refried beans, both of which we've found to be consistently better than average.
Tacos come in all variety — steak, chicken, lengua, carnitas — but it would be a shame to pass up the Tacos Arrieros ($1.99). These represent one of their more "deluxe" taco options, but it's certainly worth the few cents more for this fine taco specimen. They're filled with a blend of chorizo and pastor — two forms of pork making one magical taco. It's finished with pico de gallo and avocado, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of salsa. Your unsuspecting mouth won't even know what hit it.
For a part of town not particularly well known for standout Mexican cuisine, El Palenque is a real peach, and we're lucky to have found it. It hasn't received the attention it deserves given its rather inconspicuous location, but it's high time the world knows what El Palenque is proffering. Southwest Little Rock may still be the epicenter of fine Mexican cuisine, but this humble establishment can keep up with anything you'd find in that part of town.