Pete Tittl

Friday, Feb 10 2006 01:43 PM

El Cazador thriving in 'landmark'

By Pete Tittl

I know we don't have a heckuva lot of historical restaurants in this city. Heck most of the town seems like it was built in the past 30 years. Try looking at a city map from 1975. Whole sections of town just weren't there. Rosedale was a real pickup haven back then.

One building that goes back almost that far is the old Cask 'N Cleaver on Truxtun Avenue, which since the chain restaurant left has been the Petroleum Club and various Mexican restaurants. It's now El Cazador, and a recent sign advertising new owners prompted me to go in and check it out. I wondered, how does a Mexican restaurant stand out on this very competitive scene? What would they offer that I couldn't find in a dozen other South of the Border restaurants in the city limits? Thus this review had a clearly focused goal: find the best choices on the menu, even if it means two visits.

The building may not be some historically significant building, but various tenants over the years sure have treated it as such. The old salad bar is still there, although now without much purpose in a land of enchiladas and fajitas. No matter. The atmosphere isn't a draw, but something is. I was amazed at how popular the place already is. On both visits the dining room was about three-quarters full, though that pales in comparison to the Cask N Cleaver's glory days.

On our first visit it seemed noteworthy that the menu included five vegetarian items. Most Mexican restaurants don't really embrace that market, short of the old Taco Fresco. My companion chose the tequila chicken ($8.95) off the house specialties portion of the menu, in part because it promised a variety of fresh vegetables with the chicken. I went with the camarones salsa verde ($10.95).

We kept up our good cheer even though the chips brought to the table were stale. Not a good first impression.

The vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower) were topped with a simple cheese jack and cheddar sauce. That won my companion over, though the slightly dry grilled chicken had only the subtlest of influences from the tequila.

Seemed like a waste of good liquor if you ask me. I did like the sauce on the shrimp, which was thick and dark green and sweet and hot all at the same time. I reached for a chip to scoop up some of the remainder, but then remembered these chips weren't fresh tasting. Waste the sauce or endure the inferior chip? It was quite a conundrum.

On a return visit we found the El Cazador specialties. The sopes ($7.45) are an excellent choice. Sopes are those mesa flour fried discs (like a tostada, only thicker and moister) that Red Pepper in the northeast specializes in. Actually they don't specialize in it, but theirs are the best.

El Cazador's can stand up to that standard, though they weren't as soft in texture as the Red Peppers. They were as rich and tasty. You can get them with chicken, chile verde or carne asada. I was in a beef mood so I got the carne asada, and the thin strips of beef were a great choice.

My companion tried the chili verde chimichanga burrito ($7.45) and it looked as big as a house. The verde was made with huge chunks of tender pork simmered in a beautiful green sauce. I'm not sure but I think she ate off that burrito for a few days. They look like they worry about you going home hungry.

By the way, the chips were stale again on a return visit, but we noticed how fresh, hot and spicy the salsa is. I'd bring my own chips to enjoy that stuff.

Service was kind, efficient and with just enough hospitality to lure you back. There were mariachis there on a Saturday night, but they didn't really get going until we were leaving.

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