El Paso

August 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Posted in Restaurants | Leave a comment
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El Paso is one of those places I’ve walked past upteen times, but never actually visited. Perhaps that’s due to its less-than-ideal location (at the bottom of the Moor, with a prime view across the current building work) and its shiny red plastic exterior, which is more takeaway than restaurant. But, after a couple of fantastic meals at London Road venues that don’t look much cop from the outside, we decided to give El Paso a whirl, and were very pleasantly surprised.

Behind the tacky exterior lies a cosy, welcoming little venue. We were braced for a worn-around-the-edges sort of place, but instead were greeted by neatly laid out tables, a funky little bar tucked away in the corner and a clear view into the kitchen, which is always a good sign.

And the surprises kept on coming: not only does El Paso have a cocktail menu, but our mojitos (£5.95) could have given snazzier venues like Browns and Mud Crab a run for their money. They were certainly a notch above the mojitos we had at ultra-modern Revolution the previous week – who’d have thought it??

True, they were sweeter than your traditional mojito, but they went down such a storm that we were on our second round before we’d finished weighing up the menu. El Paso has the full range of Mexican and Italian nosh on offer: crespelle dishes, enchiladas, burritos, chimichanga, paella, chilli con carne, lasagna, bolognese, pizza, and seafood dishes, including swordfish for those feeling adventurous. As lovers of both Mexican and Italian, we had a tough time picking just one meal, but finally gave the waiter our orders and, tums rumbling, waited for our grub.

And waited.

And waited.

Despite being one of only two parties in the restaurant, it was a good forty minutes before our food arrived. We could see the chef preparing our meals from scratch in the adjoining kitchen, but forty minutes is longer than anyone should have to wait for their dinner in a next-to-empty restaurant. If you visit El Paso during peak dining hours, make sure you don’t arrive as hungry as we did.

I plumped for the Mexican side of El Paso’s double-whammy Mexican/Italian menu, and ordered a veggie burrito (£8.95). My pair of fat, cheese-slathered burritos were served with a mountain of yellow rice covered with fistfulls of corriander. The coriander gave the rice a freshness I wasn’t expecting, while the burritos were absolutely stuffed with the usual suspects plus something I hadn’t encountered in a veg burrito before: spinach. The spinach not only gave the filling a unique colour, but also a really different flavour, with the fiery spices and cooling cheese completing this flavour-packed dish. Quite simply one of the freshest and most interesting-tasting burritos I’ve ever had the pleasure of crossing paths with.

After the taste sensation of the burrito and herby rice, the side salad was a complete let down. It was as bland as pre-packaged supermarket fare. To make matters worse, the El Paso staff brought us an extra portion of salad to share, which included the bonus prize of a stray piece of cling-film. The bowl it came in was also stained, as though it had been used for serving sauce-based dishes in the past. It may not have been dirty, but this bowl should have been bleached, or thrown out rather than reused as a salad bowl.

Moving on from this salad-related disaster and onto the star of the meal: El Paso’s paella (£10.00). This jaw-dropper was faultlessly presented with decorative shell-on king prawns and a ring of mussel shells arranged around the edge of the plate. A generous sprinkling of herbs, and you’re onto a winner even before you’ve taken a bite.

But what about the taste? The shell-on king prawns didn’t just have the visual wow-factor; they were succulent and perfectly cooked, and the rice was a treasure-trove of seafood: melt-in-the-mouth squid, small prawns and mussel meat, with a little chicken thrown in for good measure. A seafood lover’s paradise.

Our bill came with a few complimentary chocolates, but if El Paso were trying to soften the blow of the bill with sweets, they needn’t have bothered: we’d had our fill of fresh, tasty and high-quality grub for a very reasonable price.

After such a satisfying meal, it’s easy to play down El Paso’s shortcomings – the bland side salad, the less than spotless salad bowl, the missing locks on the ladies’ loo, and the shabby, empty function room you have to walk past on your way to the aforementioned lock-less loo. It’s this lack of attention to detail that makes El Paso a rough-around-the-edges find, rather than something really special. Fantastic food, surprisingly good cocktails and reasonable prices – but frustratingly, this place could do better.

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