Quality in a plain wrapper

El Indio puts the emphasis on food, not festoonery

PASANDO LA COMIDA Ray Horn and his wife Janice, owners of El Indio since 1990, team up to fill another lunch order.

PASANDO LA COMIDA Ray Horn and his wife Janice, owners of El Indio since 1990, team up to fill another lunch order.

Photo By Tom Angel

Where to find it: El Indio is located at 465 E. 20th St. (345-6757). Hours: Mon. & Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m; Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen around these parts, but really good Mexican restaurants are not quite so prevalent.

El Indio is one of those Mexican restaurants that make such an impression upon you that you return again and again. Now housed in a no-nonsense building at the corner of East 20th and Fair streets, this long-running Chico restaurant started out on Park Avenue many years ago. It’s just off the 20th Street exit from Highway 99 now, so it’s easier to get to.

And El Indio is all about convenience—and good flavor. It’s not a place you go to for atmosphere. The interior is plain and nondescript, but some days I’m happy to forgo an array of piñatas, serapes, and maracas festooning every wall. Sometimes a simple, restful environment is exactly what the mind needs.

El Indio has a sentimental hold upon me, as well, for it’s the first place my sweetie took me out to dinner. Obviously, he didn’t feel the need to try to impress me with a lavish and expensive meal at Christian Michael’s or The Albatross; he was happy to impress me with a tasty, inexpensive, south-of-the-border meal.

He adores El Indio because, he says, the ingredients are always fresh there—which is not always the case with all Mexican restaurants. His song of praises includes the following: The beans don’t have lard in them, the salads are never wilted, the chicken is good and fresh meat with no annoying gristle, and the salad dressing is something you actually want on top of your salad.

We also like El Indio because it’s never maddeningly noisy like some downtown restaurants, where talking with a companion is akin to having a shouting match.

Recently, I took his 93-year-old mother out to lunch at El Indio, and we both ordered the Atkin’s-Style Chicken Tostada ($4.75). A 93-year-old doesn’t really need to watch her carbs; I think she just copied my order so she wouldn’t have to ponder all of the good choices on the menu. The tostadas were sumptuous and pleasing, with a nice bed of greens piled high with shredded chicken, cheese and fresh salsa. They came with a dressing that passed my test—and I’m finicky about salad dressings. All in all, I highly recommend the Atkin’s-Style Tostada as a luncheon item for those who hate to leave a Mexican restaurant feeling bloated on beans and rice.

I noticed El Indio has a “meaty-tasting vegetarian taco” on its menu these days ($2.75), something I’ll have to go back and try. But my all-time, indisputable favorite at El Indio is the taquitos, which are unlike any taquitos I have had anywhere, anytime (beef or chicken, $4.25). These taquitos should win an award. The tortillas are just the right consistency between soft and crunchy, the meat inside is always sublimely seasoned and cooked, and the taquitos are served with a memorable guacamole. My partner and I have to go get some taquitos every now and then, just to bring some order to life when things have gotten a little out of balance.

Another nice feature is the daily special, which is posted on an easel as you enter the door. And of course you can order anything to go from this locally owned and operated establishment, where all items are prepared from the finest local produce, meat and spices.

If it’s atmosphere you’re looking for (such as a mariachi band), El Indio is not the place. If it’s simply good, well prepared, inexpensive Mexican food you’re craving, you’ll want to head on down to East 20th Street.

And don’t forget to try those taquitos.