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Mexican food reminds me of the colors of Phoenix; a combination of browns, reds and yellows with a touch of green. Sometimes these colors can combine for a picturesque scene, while at other times they offer a neutral backdrop. The food at El Norteno is made with the same color palate. While some dishes stand out like an epic Phoenix sunset, others seemed to fall into the desert background.
At the intersection of 7th Avenue and Roosevelt Street, El Norteno catches the attention of drivers with the bright, hand-painted mural that adorns the side of the restaurant. As I pulled into the parking lot a little after 3 p.m., I predicted the lunch crowd would be gone. Surprisingly, there were cars in the lot and at least half of the tables were filled in the small covered outdoor seating area. I walked to the door and admired the colorful painted restaurant name and then I noticed a sign, “CASH ONLY.” Embarrassed because I only had a credit card, I turned to my friend who assured me she could cover the meal. I was a little upset because there was no mention of a cash-only policy on the website, but I pushed my feelings aside and entered the restaurant.
The ordering area was only large enough to fit about four people, so I stood toward the back and looked at the picture menu that covered the wall. Once it was time to order, I asked the friendly man behind the counter for the best entrees. He suggested the #3, a red chili bowl with refried beans, rice and a tortilla, and a #12, an enchilada, taco, and tostada. For drinks I ordered horchata and my friend ordered Mexican hibiscus tea.
In less than five minutes the man called out the order. It took several trips to bring all of the food out to the table. The Styrofoam and aluminum containers were filled to the brim with steaming rice, beans and meat.
I wanted to try the red chili bowl first. The meal was not in a bowl but in a three-section take-out box. In the large section the meat was in a thick, red sauce similar to the consistency of an Indian favorite chicken tikka masala and the two smaller sections had refried beans smothered in melted cheese and rice. I took my first bite and was warmed by the rich, pepper flavors. The spice was not overwhelming, but it definitely gave a kick.
Then I tried the refried beans. I could eat those beans all day long. Warm, creamy, cheesy goodness filled my mouth bite after bite. At this point I was excited to try the rice, but was sadly disappointed. The rice was dry and not as flavorful as the other two dishes.
To add a twist to the #3 one can choose to use the flour tortilla to make it burro style. Steam rose into the air as I unwrapped it from the paper. Carefully I added the meat, beans and rice and took a bite, but the tortilla was surprisingly dry and it detracted from its delicious contents.
Next I tried the cheese enchilada. Layers of gooey cheese and tortilla were smothered in mild red chili sauce. When I took a bite, it was almost as if I were eating a pizza because the cheese and sauce complemented one another to perfection.
My elation began to settle as I tried the two remaining items, the taco and tostada. Both were average and nothing different from any other Mexican restaurant in the area. The shredded taco meat was dry and had an oily taste, and the tostada was crunchy on the outside but bland and a little soft toward the middle.
As for drinks, the horchata was below average and not recommended by the man at the counter. However, the Mexican hibiscus tea was sweet and refreshing.
I left El Norteno feeling grateful for my cash-carrying friend. My stomach was filled with satisfying food and with my hands filled with soon to be satisfying leftovers.
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