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Quick Bites: El Caribe Tex-Mex

This entry is part of a series, Austin Scene»

Chalupas

Tuesday evenings often find me near the corner of Koenig Lane and Lamar. I guess it gives me a thrill to be walking free near that many Texas DPS troopers. Ah, if they only knew. But I digress…

There are a few eateries on that stretch of Lamar, and one of them is actually hard to see unless you know it’s there, or are walking. If you’re driving along Lamar and paying attention, you’ll skip right by El Caribe Mexican Restaurant. I know, because I’ve been by it countless times and never knew it was there and I watch for small, out-of-the-way, hole-in-the-wall diners.

El Caribe is all of that.

It’s not a new place, obviously. Simple layout, with a couple of tables that can be broken into squares, seating four each. Eight or nine cozy booths, ideal for two diners and a bit of a squeeze for up to four. The place is clean and tidy, and you can see partway into the kitchen from most of the dining area. Nothing fancy in the whole place, but everything serviceable and uncluttered.

BurritosIt was only a half hour before closing when I arrived, on a weeknight. Still, the place was about half-full, mostly students from the looks. The smells from the kitchen were appealing. I could see a couple of folks working in the kitchen, though there wasn’t anybody out front greeting at that moment. I helped myself to a booth and looked around some more.

Lots of interesting decorations, in an Austin Weird sort of way. Dried fish hanging from the light fixtures. Knick-knacks on the trim. A picture or two. There’s a small shelf of alcoholic liquids, above and behind the till, so apparently you can get a mixed drink or a shot of rum if you want. Not a full bar, mind you; but they do serve beer and margaritas.

The serving lady came out and placed nicely laden plates of food at a couple of tables, then dropped off a menu for me. She was busy, all energy and smiles. That’s one of the things I noticed: Everybody in the place was smiling, diners and staff alike. (I’m sure glad they were happy to see me.)

I ordered the fajita beef burrito, as I was pretty famished. There’s a good collection of meals on the menu, which isn’t fancy but is clear about the choices. There are also some interesting interior Mexico dishes, a bit different for an Austin Tex-Mex joint; I guess that’s why they call themselves a Mexican place. That’s a good sign, I believe, as it shows the folks who own El Caribe have traditional roots. Which meant they really knew how to cook, I hoped.

My food arrived quickly, hot and aromatic. The table sauce is quite zesty, hitting the front and middle of the tongue with plenty of heat while providing an abundance of yellow onion and cilantro, in a fresh tomato base. Not a lot of back-of-the-throat action, which means no heavy smoked chiles in the mix. A sturdy sauce, and I went through a small bowl of it quite quickly and asked for more to top my burrito.

The entrée come on a well-loved, classic oblong plate accompanied by refried beans, Spanish rice and sauce, with the burrito front and center. A light chile gravy was generously applied, topped with shreds of white melting cheese. The aroma was outstanding and reminded me how hungry I was.

I dug into that large roll of tortilla-wrapped of fajita meat with a vengeance. I enjoyed this burrito quite a bit, and it wasn’t just my high appetite working. The meat was tender and flavorful, without being heavy or over-seasoned. There was a good balance between meat, grilled onions and bell peppers in the filling. Yes, this burrito really was a large fajita all rolled up! A bit of cilantro, some beans, the works. The sauce had the earthy tones of dried, smoked chiles, the ones that weren’t used in the table salsa.

I hear that El Caribe has great lunch specials. Good enough that some folks ask for them at dinnertime, even though they may have to pay a buck or two more just to get them. Next time I’m down that way mid-day I’ll check out one of these specials.

Over all, I was pleased with my meal. A classic Tex-Mex diner experience, with tasty food and no downsides. El Caribe isn’t a “fine dining” experience, but it doesn’t propose to be; indeed, it’s exactly what it seems, and does a good job of living up to my expectations for this type of restaurant and meal. It’s not fancy, but I now know why the diners were all smiling…

El Caribe on Urbanspoon

El Caribe Mexican Restaurant, 5610 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX 78751. Phone 512.452.6207. Open seven days a week: Mon-Thurs, 11 AM – 9 PM; Friday, 11 AM – 10 PM; Saturday, 10 AM – 10 PM; Sunday, 10 AM – 9 PM. Lunch Specials, Mon-Fri, 11 AM – 2 PM. Food to Go, and Catering. Award-winning salsa and specialty margaritas.

Enjoy the (Hidey-Hole Tex-Mex) Heat!

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  2. Restaurant Review: Gumbo's Louisiana Style Café
  3. Restaurant Review: Chola Indian Restaurant
  4. Restaurant Review: Fujian Grand China Buffet, Austin
  5. Restaurant Review: Casa Garcia's Tex-Mex Restaurant
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  7. Restaurant Review: Truluck's Seafood, Steak and Crab House
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