There are several Los Ocampo restaurants spread around the metro but only one full service restaurant and bar, which recently opened close to the 3M campus. Unlike the others, which are quick-serve taco shops, this one boasts a full bar and an extensive menu of Mexican specialties that careens from tacos and tortas to menudo and huarachazo. Largely due to a reputation for authenticity and the positive chatter on the Internet, I decided to check it out.
Beyond the festive décor accented with beer-themed piñatas and sombreros, the first thing that really caught my attention was the welcoming hospitality. Our group arrived at the same moment as a few others, and the hostess apologized profusely for the brief delay. Once we were seated, our cheerful waiter appeared in an instant with “Hola amigos,” took our order for a round of tasty margaritas, and the meal was off to a promising start.
Menus at Mexican restaurants are typically lengthy, but this one set a new standard. Not only does it detail dishes I’ve never seen before, such as sincronizada and tlacoyo, but many of the choices can be ordered with a mix and match list of 22 fillings including surprises such as flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower), cabeza de res (beef head), and requeson (Mexican style whey cheese).
When we turned to our waiter for guidance, we received the usual and frustrating “It’s all good.” However, when pressed a bit, he suggested the alambre Hawaiiano and, since we were in the mood for carnitas, the enchiladas with green sauce. The first proved to be like a Mexican pizza—a griddled tortilla topped with a mélange of bacon, pork, pineapple, onion, peppers, and cheese garnished with lime wedges and sliced radish. It was definitely unusual, and I enjoyed it. As for the enchiladas, they were perfunctory—tender and moist roast pork and a perfectly adequate salsa verde.
Guacamole is always a good test, and the version here was just fine. It tasted fresh, with plenty of tomato and cilantro, and had a good consistency. The just-from-the-fryer chips were a plus. Since the first item on the menu was a selection of chicken wings, we decided to give that a try as well. We settled on the chipotle version and were rewarded with succulent, crispy-edged wings coated with a tangy, lip-smacking sauce.
According to the menu, the restaurant makes its own masa, so we felt compelled to sample the tamales. Surprisingly, these weren’t served in a husk, and although we enjoyed the chicken stuffing, we found the cornmeal casing to be too thick and doughy.
An enjoyable order of garlic shrimp had a sprinkling of caramelized chopped garlic that provided an edge of herbal goodness. The beef fajitas, on the other hand, were simply OK. It didn’t help that the accompanying tortillas arrived wrapped in a packet of aluminum foil. It can’t cost that much to serve them in those acrylic warmers that many restaurants of the genre use.
When our waiter suggested that the best of several desserts was the tiramisu, we should have guessed that the sweets aren’t a strong suit. And they aren’t. The tres leches cake was massive and a bit dry, and the flan was adequate at best.
Shrimp fajita nachos from El Loro.
The local El Loro Mexican Restaurant chain lays claim to a half-dozen outposts scattered around the Twin Cities. As with Los Ocampo, there’s a lot of love posted on the foodie boards, so a match-up seemed appropriate.
When you walk in the door of the Burnsville location, there’s no missing the theme. South-of-the-border kitsch such as bullhorns, sombreros, and faux macaws is scattered about. It’s also not hard to notice the sturdy, well-crafted painted tables and white vinyl booths. The one thing that bloggers are near unanimous about is the hospitality, particularly when it comes to swiftly refilling the complimentary tortilla chips. At one point I counted five baskets on our table. My own impression was that the chips were a bit oversalted, a tendency that marred several dishes, and I didn’t think much of either the pedestrian, watery salsa or the secret-recipe ranch-style dip. In contrast, the small margarita for a five spot was a more promising starter.
The menu here, too, is wide ranging, and prices are notably value oriented. Unfortunately, I got the sense that low price points are a function of cutting corners. For example, the enchiladas poblanos were a pair of tortillas encasing shredded chicken, topped with a near tasteless mole sauce I suspect came from a jar. I’d also question the provenance of the white-on-white combination of burritos tipicos that combined slightly spunky chopped chorizo on the inside with a gooey “nacho cheese sauce” poured over the top. At least there wasn’t any rice in the stuffing, a culinary sin in my book.
For the most part, I’d characterize the food we sampled as Midwesternized south-of-the-border fast-cooked food. That’s probably why our favorite dish was the beef fajitas, a heaping platter of seared beef strips, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes sided with guacamole, beans, rice, and cheese. It was a huge portion that delivered on taste. The other selection we’d return for was the shrimp fajita nachos—a mountain of nicely prepared shrimp, chips, peppers, tomatoes, and onions with a melted cheese topping that challenged my general belief that seafood and cheese don’t belong together.
However, I witnessed a lot of missed opportunities: a helping of shredded carnitas that was bland and dry, a problematic shrimp cocktail with overcooked shrimp submerged in a goblet of tomato-toned juice with cilantro and avocado chunks, a whole fish that looked like tilapia (none of the waitstaff seemed to know) that had been fried to a rather mushy consistency, and a tres leche cake that tasted as if it had recently emerged from a freezer.
In fairness, the servers did seem to care about how we were enjoying the food—five minutes rarely passed without someone asking—but the fact that so much went uneaten should have been an indication.