Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: El Pelon Taqueria in Brighton

Since our recent visit to Dorado Tacos in Brookline and subsequent write-up on the best Mexican restaurants near Boston, we received a lot of great suggestions for other places to check out.  Two that we hadn't yet been to: Ken Oringer's La Verdad near Fenway Park and El Pelon near Boston College.  This weekend we tried out El Pelon.  Did it deliver?  For me, yes it delivered but I can't recommend it fully without some hesitation.

It's hard to say which specific sub-category of Mexican food El Pelon belongs to.  It's definitely a take-out restaurant with relatively limited seating.  It's not just a burrito bar- they also serve quesadillas, enchiladas, and tacos.  But I wouldn't quite call them full-service mexican take-out since they lack the depth of menu and complimentary pairing of rice and beans commonly seen in the genre.  They do offer fish tacos, but the emphasis is weighted 60/40 burritos to fish tacos.  Overall, a good assortment of items with an appealing menu.

I was torn between ordering the fish tacos and the El Guapo burrito @BostonTweet recommended on FourSquare.  Actually, I was confused whether he was saying that former Red Sox great Rich Garces AKA "El Guapo" owned El Pelon -or- frequented the place -or- recommending the El Guapo burrito so I just got bailed on the whole thing and got the chicken burrito.

There isn't a kids menu so we ordered them some tacos.  Tacos appear at two places on the menu- simply as "Tacos" where they're available for between $2.50-$2.75 per taco with chicken, pork or steak.  Or as "Tacos de la Casa" where they're offered for between $5-$6.50 for two tacos.  I thought this split was confusing.  First, why not just have one taco section with varying prices depending on the cost of ingredients?  Second, when I see Tacos de la Casa it makes me think it's going to include something more than just two tacos.  Like chips, salsa, or rice and beans.  None of these are included- they were just a pricey pair of fish tacos.  The supplemental cheese quesadillas we added on at the last minute were more readily devoured.

It looked like the entrees didn't include any chips or salsa so I added some to our order.  This too was confusing.  Listed under "Antojitos" you could get Chips and Salsa for $2.95.  Or under "Sides" you could get "Chips only" for $1.75 a small bag/$4.50 a large bag.  Or Chips, salsa & guac for $4.50.  I wanted enough for all of us so I ended up getting a large bag of chips, 1/2 pint of salsa, and a 1/2 pint of Guacamole.  This added a total of $10.50 to our bill.  Ouch!  For something I think of as being included in a typical Mexican meal (even if it's in small quantities at take-out) this was an unwelcome addition.

It was Saturday night and a Corona or some margaritas would have hit the spot.  Unfortunately no such luck.  They don't serve any alcohol.  The self-serve fountain beverages were $1.75 each.

Total cost for three adults and two kids for dinner: $45.15

The chicken burrito was good/very good.  I appreciated that it came out quickly, was served hot and fresh, and that I could discern each individual ingredient in the burrito- like cilantro.  It was a good clean burrito.  It didn't include any sour cream or guacamole (the former being unavailable and the latter being an additional charge).  I think I'll go for the El Guapo next time- I bet it would bring more thunder.

The fish tacos were interesting (see photo below).  They're described on the menu as: "Crispy Cornmeal and Spice encrusted Cod topped with Arbol Chile Mayo, Limed Onions, Pickled Cabbage and Cucumbers".  I thought the fish looked like it was going to be too-crispy/hard on the outside and perhaps dry from looking at them.  However, when you bite into them the fish is wonderfully fresh and moist.  Although the cucumbers dominate the dish visually, the onions, cabbage and chile mayo were the strength of the dish flavor-wise.

The chips were heavy and crunchy- obviously made in-house as opposed to light fluffy white chips.  The salsa fresca trended more towards pico de gallo rather than saucy salsa.  The guacamole was good but not great.  I would have appreciated more identifiable avocado in the guacamole.

Overall, an enjoyable dining adventure into the charming Boston College area of Brighton.

  • They focus on an authentic interpretation of Mexican food.
  • Generously sized burritos are flavorful with individually discernible ingredients.
  • A unique interpretation of fish tacos that tasted better than they looked.

  • Entrees don't include any beans, rice, chips or salsa.
  • Confusing and expensive chips and salsa add-on options.
  • Confusing menu split between "Tacos" and "Tacos de la Casa".
  • No kids menu.
  • No beer or margaritas.


El Pelon offers a more-authentic-than-most interpretation of Mexican take-out.  Perfectly cooked fish tacos and hearty burritos were strengths, but study the menu before you go to avoid expensive add-ons.

My Opinion

Three and a Half Stars (out of Five)

Check 'em out:
El Pelon
2197 Commonwealth Avenue (right across from BC)
Brighton, MA 02135
On Twitter: @ElPelonTaqueria
On Yelp: El Pelon Taqueria

What do you think of El Pelon?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Dear Will,

As second born, you don’t get nearly the focus and attention your brother did when he was your age. Don’t think I ever forget about that, because I don’t. I’m mindful of just how special and unique and wonderful you are everyday. In fact, today I filled out your paperwork for preschool which gave me pause to think about what a big boy you are becoming. It also made me answer some questions and note some details about you that my feeble brain may not remember in 10 years so I thought I’d record them for you here.

You are an early riser, my love. Every day you jump out of bed in the so-very-early 5:00 hour ready to start your day. Sometimes you come in our room and tell me you’re “Ready!” That’s when, me, in a coma-like state and you, ready to take on the world, come downstairs together to start the day. You watch cartoons and eat enough breakfast to fill the bellies of 3 grown men. After all, that breakfast will likely be the only solid meal you’re going to eat since you typically sleep through lunch and goof around through dinner. But boy, when there’s chocolate ice cream to be had, you’re my guy.

Your facial expressions and the way you get your pronouns wrong always makes me smile. My apologies to all the girls you’ve called “him.” (Don’t worry, they often don’t get them right either.) You are opinionated about your clothes – “This DO NOT match!” you tell me intently until I convince you otherwise. And I can always count on you, my little daredevil, to jump from the top of the couch or balance on the edge of your bed's footboard so you can reach something. Still, you haven’t broken a bone but I’ll bet that’s somewhere in our future.

Even though you’re three, you still have the most delicious chubby cheeks I’ve ever seen. Only on rare occasions do you dish out the "scrunchy nose" face when you're being funny and impetuous.  And even then, you make me beg.  You are prodigious with puzzles, fitting pieces together like a 7 year old. You’ve mastered the art of drama even at this young age. Sometimes you’ll fake a fall to get your brother in trouble (who usually deserves it) or gasp and look wide-eyed at something that’s surprised you. And, as one would expect, you play with Sam with all the vigor doing so demands. You, little boy, can hold your own and I know that toughness will serve you well.

Between your raspy, deep baby voice and meaty little thighs, it’s hard not to be in love with you. Keep up the good work growing and becoming exactly who God made you, my Willa. I’ll be right here beside you watching in adoration.


Monday, August 02, 2010

A Taste of Mexico in Massachusetts

One thing I miss about the southwest is the abundant variety of Mexican food the area offers.  I often find myself in the mood for a casual, affordable, interesting meal from a number of Mexican-inspired genres I was familiar with from growing up in the Phoenix area- some of which don't seem to be implemented very well in the Boston area.  However, after searching around off and on the past decade I've found a few restaurants that are serving up some outstanding food.

There are a few formats within this group I'd like to talk about.  I'm a fan of almost all of them, and always on the lookout for more so I thought I'd offer up six styles of Mexican food establishments and the best representations I've found in the Boston area for further discussion.  Leave a comment below and let me know what you've found that you think others should check out. 

Here are six styles of Mexican restaurants and where to find representations of each nationally and in the Boston area: 

The Sit Down Chips & Salsa and Corona Mexican Restaurant

This is the food I have a taste for on a near-daily basis.  It's the kind of place where you get a burrito smothered with enchilada sauce and cheese along with rice and beans and all the free chips and salsa you can eat.  Cold Coronas are readily available.  Some old guard Phoenix area favorites include Serrano's, Mi Amigos, Macayo, and Garcia's.  Over time ambitious restaurants impressed as well: Tia Rosa, Garduno's (evidently now defunct and/or renamed Camarones), and Abuelo's.

This category is increasingly represented nationally or near-nationally, but beware of weak implementations of the concept in the northeast which ultimately doom the franchise.  I've had lousy meals at a Garcia's in Albany (now defunct), and On The Border restaurants in the northeast (whereas I think they're pretty good closer to Mexico).

National interpretations: Don Pablos, On The Border, Chi Chi's (now defunct)
Best representation near Boston: Margaritas
Tell-tale offering: Enchilada-Style Chimichanga 

Authentic Gourmet Mexican Cuisine

This isn't really what I'm talking about- neither here in Boston or back in Arizona.  This is fine dining inspired by regional Mexican dishes.

National interpretation: None
Best representation in Boston: Casa Romero
Tell-tale offering: Mole anything 

The Burrito Bar

This category is enthusiastically represented locally.  The menu is almost exclusively burritos and usually chips and salsa.  You order at the counter, take delivery of the food, find your own seat and clean up after yourself. Bonus points to restaurants with a salsa bar- an unfortunately rare commodity in the Boston area.

National interpretation: Chipotle
Best representation near Boston: Anna's Taqueria, Qdoba.  Chipotle is still my favorite.
Tell-tale offering: Basic menu burritos and chips & salsa
Note: Burrito places like Boloco serve up tasty food but they're really not trying to serve up Mexican food.  Sure you can get a decent burrito with Mexican ingredients buts the presence of Thai, Buffalo, and Teriyaki burritos tell us where their allegiances lie.  It's with the burrito- not Mexico.

Full-Range Mexican Take-Out

Here you order from a menu that's similar to the sit-down chips, salsa and Corona restaurant but you take it to go or seat yourself.  There's tons of these in Arizona ranging from the very authentic Filibertos to the more mainstream Someburros.

In looking at some Yelp reviews in this space I see mention of Taco Bell as a reference point in this category.  I'm not sure what to say about that.  On one hand it's a format many are familiar with so it's worth discussing.  On the other hand so much of the menu is contrived it's hard to say what Taco Bell does for the national discussion on Mexican food.  At any rate there aren't even many Taco Bells in the Boston area and most are paired with a KFC.

National interpretation: Baja Fresh (2 locations in Massachusetts now both closed)
Best representation near Boston: Still looking but Boca Grande in Brighton isn't bad.
Tell-tale offering: More than just burritos and tacos are available.  Look for the presence of at least an enchilada on the menu.

Baja-Style Fish Tacos

You see these all over the place in the San Diego area.  Beer battered fish with cabbage and a unique spicy slightly-creamy dressing on a soft corn shell.  Quite a delicacy.

Pelly's in Carlsbad is excellent and Taco Surf in Pacific Beach is pretty good too.  I've heard great things about Wahoo's Fish Taco as well.  Rubio's is a chain I'd love to see in the area, but if Baja Fresh couldn't make a go of it, I highly doubt Rubio's would be successful.

My inspiration for writing this up was a visit to Dorados in Brookline, MA.  Check back soon for a full write-up.

National interpretation: Rubio's (only in the southwest so far)
Best (only?) representation near Boston: Dorado Tacos & Cemitas
Tell-tale offering: Beer battered fish tacos
Special Note: Ironic that Baja Fresh isn't Baja-style.

Conclusions and Recommendations

My point in writing this up was to highlight subtle differences between restaurants in the broad Mexican food category and perhaps catch a few comments for restaurants to check out within each of these categories.

For as much enthusiasm as there is for the category in the Boston area, many national chains seem to fail when they attempt to expand here.  I don't know why that is exactly.  Is it that Bostonians don't like chains?  Or that the chains are poor implementations of the concept somehow?

Photo Credit: (drop me an E-mail if you'd like me to remove it)

Question of the Day: What do you think of the state of Mexican food in the Boston area?  Any gems you've discovered? 
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