Briggs Street, Erie’s de facto main street, is sparsely lined with a handful of restaurants, a rambunctious karaoke bar and a few unpresuming storefronts. It’s pretty quiet in Old Town on a weeknight.
But on a corner opposite the lodge-style post office sits a busy, if architecturally uninspiring, Mexican eatery—El Paso Cantina & Grille.
Say what you will, it has filled an ethnic culinary niche that was sorely lacking before its arrival this summer. And its mole kicks—for lack of eloquence—ass.
Despite initially feeling as if we lowered into a basement, El Paso’s interior has plenty of room for a stage tucked into the back dining room, a decorative corner fireplace and vibrant wall paintings depicting larger-than-life versions of the house margarita. They really aren’t that big, unfortunately. But they are tasty, with your choice of a salt- or sugar-coated rim. I recommend the pomegranate variety.
As almost every Mexican restaurant does, El Paso greeted us with a basket of chips and a mortar full of salsa. Warm, salty and crisp, the chips were exactly the way I like them. Unfortunately, the salsa was a bit runny, sliding off each chip onto the white tablecloth. Apologies to our server.
Still, the little bit I did salvage came across with tremendous pomp—jalapeños dotted the enduring flavor of rich tomatoes and a persistent bite of cilantro.
One margarita down, my boyfriend and I tossed orders at the server—chicken mole ($10) and chicken flautas ($10). Though we were prodded to try the all-you-can-eat enchilada bar (chicken and beef are the centerpieces), we were slightly put off by the haphazard warming plates wobbling on the buffet table. Maybe next visit.
Simple and straightforward, our meals slid in front of us five minutes after ordering. Both—and I say this without need for dramatization—were outstanding.
The mole consisted of moist, shredded chicken cooked in a traditional chocolate-cinnamon sauce. It was piquant, powerful and profoundly complicated. I thought I noted undertones of clove in the mixture, and there were at least a dozen other spices that rolled around with chicken, but I couldn’t place them. It reminded me slightly of Christmas and the scents of freshly baked cookies, though lacking the same sweetness. Paired with a fluffy side of rice (no embellishments), it dominated the plate.
As it should. There’s little worse than a plate covered with too much rice and not enough entrée.
My flautas were equally impressive. Ordinarily, I wrestle with improperly wrapped tortillas, chicken slipping out of the ends, fried to a perfect crisp. The tortilla is too often chewy, over fried and low quality. But my trio of flautas was crisp, juicy and a perfect golden brown. The tortillas made the difference. A variation on the usual, they seemed to be layered almost like phyllo, giving each a uniquely light, crispy texture. Though eminently filling, they were accompanied by a healthy helping of rice—tasty, but not bogged down by a heavy-handed use of lard.
Curiously separate from the rest of our meals were the beans. They arrived fashionably late, and mostly unremarkable. Prepared in southern style, red and kidney beans sat basting in a lightly-herbed, very oily chicken broth paired with chucks of ground beef and slivers of sausage. It was a unique take on the usual refried bean complement, but not one I would recommend. There’s a reason why refried beans appear in countless other Mexican restaurants.
Beyond our enjoyable meal, there was a fun dynamic inside. Dinner wrapped up with raucous laughter from a booth in the back corner—a young family with parents on their third beers before their meal had even started. There’s a long outdoor patio that seems perfect for margarita happy hours.
It would seem Briggs Street just got a little more colorful with this new addition.
El Paso Cantina & Grille
605 Briggs St., Erie
Bottom Line: Good quality food, decent prices, interesting ambience; good for people-watching