- FOR BIG APPETITES: The tasty Torta Cubana at Eliella.
Our quest to find the best happy hour deals in Central Arkansas is still young, but it's safe to say Eliella ranks among the best. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the Mexican restaurant on Baseline sells its excellent tacos for $1, margaritas for $1.99 and pitchers of beer for $5. Cheap drinks are all we require at happy hour, but man, oh man, is that taco deal a steal. Eliella's, of course, are authentic — protein, chopped onion, cilantro on a corn tortilla — and they come in every variety you could want, including the familiar, such as asada, barbacoa (barbecue beef), chorizo, pastor, pollo and queso, and the more exotic, at least for gringos, like buche (pork stomach), cabeza (brain), lengua (tongue), nopal (cactus pad) and tripa (intestines).
When we stopped in for lunch last week for an Arkansas Times staff outing — and somehow showed restraint and did not spend the afternoon camped out at the restaurant's newly renovated bar — we cast our net fairly wide, starting with a buche taco ($2.75). The meat was as soft and rich as marrow. We gave high marks, too, to the barbacoa ($3.10) and carnitas ($2.75) tacos, both of which indicated a kitchen staff that knows how to cook larger cuts of meat "low and slow" without letting them lose the marbling that lends them flavor. The house-made corn tortillas were heavenly corn pillows the likes of which are rarely found in the bread aisle at the grocery store, and which may very well restore your faith in the culinary relevance of those plastic tortilla warmers your college weed dealer used to roll joints.
The tacos, and everything else, can be customized to your liking thanks to Eliella's unique and impressively fresh complimentary salad and condiment bar, which has iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumber, pickled onion, limes, several kinds of salsa and more. If you want homemade tortilla chips fresh out of the frier, though, you'll have to pay $1.49.
A homemade, slightly charred in oil tortilla, a spicy sauce on the tender chicken and a little cilantro made for a superior quesadilla ($7.25). Guacamole and a thick sour cream were served on the side of the generous three-quesadilla serving.
The Torta Cubana ($9.25) was hearty and delicious, full of crumbled sausage, ham, cheese, veggies and a fried egg on a soft roll, all griddled to marry the ingredients. We've had tortas elsewhere that tasted like plain ol' hoagies by another name; this one was one was unique and loaded with flavor — a meal we'll remember to order next time we're hung over or famished.
- PLATILLO DE ARRACHERA: The skirt steak and nopales (cactus) with beans, rice and tortillas stood out.
Our shrimp fajitas ($9.75) were sizzling nicely when they arrived at the table, accompanied by rice, refried beans, sliced avocado and steaming corn tortillas. Maybe it's because we'd gone overboard with the free salad and chips earlier, but we found them slightly overcooked and under-flavored — the grilled veggies just a bit too soft, the shrimp just a bit too chewy. The good news is that these minor sins were forgotten when the fajitas were paired with the restaurant's standout sides. No mere workhorses, the meaty homemade tortillas, perfectly fluffy rice and rich, creamy beans elevated the plate to another level.
Perhaps the standout of all was the Platillo de Arrachera ($11.99), a perfectly tender and well-seasoned skirt steak, accompanied by grilled green onions, nopales (grilled and sliced cactus pads that tasted a bit like okra) and corn tortillas. It left us full and happy for the rest of the day.
7700 Baseline Road
There's no iced tea to be had at Eliella; several folks treated themselves to horchata ($2.99) — rice water, milk, vanilla, cinnamon and sugar, similar to chai over ice. On our way out, we sampled a couple of the restaurant's fresh fruit ices from a dessert bar just inside the door. Both were tasty, and we'd have ordered a full cup of either the guanabana or the chili mango if we hadn't been too stuffed to handle it.
10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar, credit cards accepted.