JR EL RODEO
130 Montauk Hwy., East Moriches
SERVICE: Friendly and a little bit poky, because everything is made to order.
AMBIENCE: No-frills storefront with eight tables
ESSENTIALS: Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; credit cards, wheelchair accessible
Tucked between a beauty parlor and a dancing school in a quiet East Moriches strip mall, El Rodeo was the only business open after dark on a recent Friday night, attracting a steady stream of customers to its deserted location.
It isn’t El Rodeo’s generic sign, with cactus and caballero images, that beckons a mix of English- and Spanish-speaking diners. Nor is it the haphazard décor — a takeout counter, a scattering of tables, walls painted a bright blue and hung with sombreros, maps and other Mexican souvenirs. And it’s not the entertainment — a flat-screen television suspended from the ceiling, broadcasting grim Univision news and dubbed versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
Authentic, value-priced Mexican dishes are the draw here, as they are at two other restaurants (Taqueria Mexico and Taqueria Cielito Lindo, both in Riverhead) in a mini-empire owned by the Rojas family.
El Rodeo’s menu includes the standards — citrusy guacamole, bulging burritos. But there are plenty of items not available at Chipotle. We started with sopes de pollo ($10), three slightly puffed corn cakes (as opposed to the delicate and thin tortillas El Rodeo uses for tacos) topped with seasoned shredded chicken, salad, and sour cream. Drizzled with hot sauce (the green is hot, the red is really hot), they present a riot of textures (chewy, crisp, creamy) and flavors (sweet, spicy, tart).
The tamales were exceptional. Cornmeal dough, encasing either cheese or chicken, is so light after steaming that it is almost fluffy. Tacos at El Rodeo come with the standard chicken, pork, and beef fillings. But why not try pork tongue or Mexican chorizo when you have the chance?
If you’re craving seafood, you better like shrimp, which is offered in fajitas, fried, and in soup. That’s it for dishes from the ocean. Vegetarians will also find slim pickings, although I wouldn’t complain if I had to make a meal of the tacos dorados, four deep-fried cheese tacos covered in a crisp shower of lettuce, drizzled with sour cream, and sprinkled with more cheese.
The meat dishes are the stars. Grilled skirt steak, a special one night, had been rubbed with salt and spices, which gave the meat a tasty and beautifully caramelized crust. Juicy, tart grilled cactus was a delightful and surprising accompaniment. The carnitas platter, served with rice, beans and warm tortillas, was another standout, the slow-cooked chunks of meltingly tender pork pan-fried until crisp on the outside. The Alambre, a combination of Mexican chorizo, beef, sautéed onions and peppers, and melted cheese, was a new way to satisfy the gooey Jack cheese craving I often get when I enter a Mexican restaurant.
Maybe my favorite item on the menu was the pozole, a spicy soup thick with exploded hominy kernels and large pieces of braised pork. Chopped raw onion and cilantro sprinkled on just before serving added bright, fresh flavor and cut the richness of the pork.
A handwritten sign at the counter advertises rice pudding for dessert, but if you’ve ordered one of El Rodeo’s generous platters you may have had your fill of rice. A fruit-flavored milk shake, in an exotic flavor such as guanabana or a familiar one like strawberry, makes a good palate cleanser.