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El Torito Mexican Grill

Indulging the Soft Spot Mexican joints with spice to spare

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Things I am a sucker for: hole-in-the-wall diners; horror novels that depend on suspense rather than gore; any piece of fruit dipped in chocolate; men who resemble Charlie Sheen; smiles on anyone under the age of six; salt-and-vinegar potato chips; cheap, good Mexican food.

Obviously I can't indulge in all of these things, or I'd weigh 400 pounds, be afraid of the dark, have a terrible complexion and be divorced. So I limit my vices to a manageable few. But the profusion of little Mexican restaurants around town may be my downfall yet.

El Torito Mexican Grill is especially dangerous. It's a tiny little place, spotlessly clean, and way too close to my home for my own good. It's almost hidden in a little strip mall on the west side of Circle, between Platte and Galley. Most everything is prepared fresh on the spot (the one notable exception being the store-bought tortilla chips), and the care in the food preparation really shines through. The menu isn't all-inclusive with 97 different combination plates, but it doesn't need to be. What they offer is done right and done well.

We sampled the enchilada plate ($6), which came with rice and a tasty mound of cheese-covered refried beans. We skipped the chicken and had ground beef, which was nicely seasoned and not overly greasy. The enchiladas are covered with a fresh, snappy red chili sauce, not too hot but far from bland. And the carnitas ($6) are something else altogether. If you love a really good pork roast, even if you don't care for Mexican food, you must try El Torito's carnitas. The huge pile of braised pork was so tender that it fell apart into smaller chunks when the fork went near it. And the flavor -- deep and earthy and rich -- made me wish I could eat this dish every day.

The salsas at El Torito are pretty good as well. The red is hot, with that really intense flavor of freshly ground chiles that isn't totally lost in the heat. The green sauce is much milder, tangier with tomatillos. I'm anxious to try both sauces on the tacos, especially since they can be made with the carnitas. I'm also curious about the carne asada, to see if the beef fares as well as the pork. But I'm sure my husband will be urging me back on the weekend, because on Saturdays and Sundays they serve one of his favorites, menudo.

My other weakness is Alfonso's Mexican Food, which opened in the same strip as Target, Safeway and Ross at the corner of Union and Academy. The first thing about this place that immediately impressed me was that the kitchen is flawlessly spotless. It has to be, because while you're standing at the counter agonizing over what to order, the kitchen is right there in front of you, where the cook is calmly assembling the order before yours.

The menu at Alfonso's is a little larger than El Torito's, with a little more variety. They offer breakfast burritos (available all day) and several specials, like two fish tacos with rice, beans and a small drink for $3.95. The chips here are fried fresh when you order them, lightly salted and sprinkled with a pico de gallo of finely minced tomato, onion and fresh cilantro. The salsas here are also red and green, with another chile-infused, tongue-tingly red sauce and milder but sassy green sauce.

I can't pretend to be an aficionado of rolled tacos, but I know what I like, and I like these. Corn tortillas are tightly rolled around seasoned ground beef and fried to a crispy crunch. You get three topped with cheese for $1.65, or topped with guacamole for $2.50. I highly recommend the extra splurge for the guacamole.

Be hungry when you order a combination plate. The beef burrito and cheese enchilada plate ($5.40) is almost enough food for two people. The burrito is gargantuan, stuffed with juicy, flavorful, tender shredded beef and onions, topped with a wonderful red sauce. The beans here are to die for, velvety smooth but studded with tender chunks of bean full of slow-simmered flavor. The tamale plate ($4.25) is almost criminally underpriced. You get two beautifully cooked tamales, with perfectly cooked masa dough surrounding tender chunks of pork and olives, with a dollop of the same wonderful red sauce on top, accompanied by a pile of fresh pico de gallo.

There are a lot of menu options at Alfonso's that I haven't explored yet. I'm intrigued by the ham and jalapeno quesadilla, because it sounds like an ideal breakfast. I haven't had a chance yet to ask what the machaca plate or the savavidas burritos are, and I might even try one of the more expensive shrimp items on the menu, the Camarones Rancheros or the Camarones a la Diablo ($9 each).

Despite my own personal battle with the bulge, I hope these little shops prosper and multiply, even if I do have to put down my trashy novel long enough to eat my burrito.

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