Knowing how important we think our annual Reader’s Choice restaurant awards are, we took note of the local Hispanic version that appeared recently in our sister publication, El Latino.
Las Palmas, with two restaurants in Pulaski County and another in Russellville, was to El Latino’s restaurant list what Outkast was to the 2004 Grammys — winning in many categories and also walking away with the primo award, Best of the Best.
We’d never dined at either Central Arkansas Las Palmas, so, curiosity piqued, we set out for lunch on the north side, to the location in the shopping center on the southeast corner of McCain Boulevard and Highway 67/167.
What El Latino readers had dubbed "Best of the Best" we found to be average at best — yet another example of the style of Mexican food now found on every other block, at restaurants like Senor Tequila, Casa Mexicana, Casa Manana, Cancun, El Dorado, El Acapulco, La Hacienda, and so on.
The menus at these places offer ample variety, and yet there’s little variation between establishments. White cheese dip here, white there, camarones here, camarones there. Lunch special No. 5 here, lunch special No. 5 with the exact same ingredients there. Ay, caramba!
Maybe you’ll discover a slight nuance or two of differentiation. For example, and here’s some news, Senor Tequila has kicked up its guacamole to a Casa Manana level of greatness (i.e., chunky, real, little filler in the way of sour cream, and spicy!). But it’s rare. Variety among these joints — now that would be especiale!
Obviously we weren’t blown away by Las Palmas North. The enchilada combo special (one each of cheese, ground beef and chicken) was rated good by our friend who will eat anything — he particularly liked the blend of cheeses and the ample meat and veggies on the plate. The lunch special of a taco and chile relleno was also pleasant (the relleno fried and not soggy, which some places find hard to accomplish), while the Lunch Special No. 1 (yeah, that one) was "nothing special," our other moody dining friend said. The overly creamy guacamole was turning brown, the white cheese dip lacked any pizzazz (few have it, save for Casa Mexicana’s really good, garlicky kind), the beans and rice were mundane, the salsa and chips could have come from Sysco, and the punch was Hawaiian. We did like the really large glasses for the drinks.
Here, however, is where we encountered one of those quirks of smallish "chains," where one establishment can be qualitatively different (and better) than its sister shop. What causes that, we’re not sure.
Management? The cook? The atmosphere? Is it the comparison of a lunch experience inside a tiny storefront in a cramped strip mall north of the river to a dining experience outside on a wide-open patio at a lesser-filled strip mall in Otter Creek?
Whatever it was, Las Palmas on Stagecoach Road categorically is, if not best of the best, most certainly best of the two Las Palmas. It was pretty good compared to the whole lot, in fact. It was as if we really hadn’t eaten at the same restaurant chain.
For starters its guacamole was a brighter green and a little less creamy, but fiery hot with the kick of jalapeno. If not an A-, it was a solid B. (Though, again, you will more likely wow this reviewer if your guac is more a natural, inconsistent mix with chunks of avocado blended into the creaminess, and with a kick that warms without sending you straight to your water, made possible with the right balancing of pepper against citrus, and with a little less than a choking amount of cilantro. For a good recipe, read any Rick Bayless Mexican cookbook.)
Anyway, our visit south gave us a chance to sample some better entree efforts. Steak was one of those categories in which El Latino readers rated Las Palmas the best, and its Steak Mexicano was pretty good overall. Covered in onions and peppers, the flavor of the thin T-bone was ideal, though the texture was indifferent — early bites were chewy, but closer to the bone it approached the tenderness of USDA Prime grade.
The garlic shrimp entree also had a consistent seasoning and a fresh feel, while the surprise of the night was the carnitas. Moist pieces of pork required no more than their own juices — no spicy brown sauce, hot sauce or mole needed — and wrapped in flour tortillas with bean paste and Spanish rice, they proved a delightful dish.
The check proved just as delightful. Ample portions ran us just under $8 per entree, $4.50 for a large bowl of guacamole, $6 for a not-too-tart margarita with a fair salvo of tequila, and $3 for a Tecate.
Service at both establishments was first- rate, something else we’ve come to expect at the plethora of local Mexican joints. In fact, if you encounter below-par service at a Mexican place around here, leave immediately. The competition is too ample to put up with sorry service.
By the way, what rated as having the best service in El Latino’s Reader’s Choice restaurant list? Las Palmas, of course.