All smiles

Photo by David Robert

If you love those wonderful steak tacos that Angelo’s serves up at the Sparks Hometowne Farmers’ Market, you will be pleased to learn that steak tacos are only half of the story. Imagine if the simple, authentic pleasure of those tacos could be applied to a whole menu of homespun Mexican goodies, for only a few bucks more than you would shell out for the fast-food imitators.

This Sparks restaurant has an atmosphere that is stripped down and simple. No decoration to speak of, except one television and a bunch of booths and tables. I’m not a big fan of eating in front of the TV when I go out. How does that make it different from what I do at home? The main sensory input here comes from the luscious aromas emanating from the kitchen. Forget about the set—this is all about the comida.

When Tony and I arrived, the dining room was steadily beginning to fill with the boisterous sounds of happy Spanish-speaking families and friends. We were the only people in the place who had to bother with the English translation side of the menu. Jackpot. Wherever the locals eat is always preferred over some prissy, overly manicured, corporate idea of what Mexican food really is.

The menu has breakfast items, as well as a fine selection of items for the less adventurous gringos and the family favorites that, to some, might seem a little scary. I’m still working up the nerve to try eating calf brains, for instance. I’ll bet they are really good, but I still have to psych myself up for that. Tongue, or lengua, has its fans. If cooked properly, it can be quite toothsome.

Tony loves anything in a burrito, so he ordered the burrito that contains the same meat that is used in the tacos at the Farmers’ Market ($2.75). Marinated and grilled, the beef was slightly smoky and tender. Rolled up with beans, rice, fresh salsa and cilantro, the burrito wasn’t overly large but was quite filling. On the side, he also ordered a plain cheese quesadilla ($2) that came with a fiery, chile-laden salsa that was a notch hotter than I expected. It is a shame that in this medium you cannot see the look on my face as my mouth incinerated. I think I drew stares from some of the children.

I chose the sopes ($1.75 each, $2 with meat). These are best described as thick masa (cornmeal) cakes I chose to top with chicken, slathered with refried beans, sliced avocado, sour cream and salsa. Again, this dish was plainly presented, but sumptuous and filling.

The coup de grace had to be the soup. I debated getting it when I saw the nearly quart-sized bowl, but I decided that I like posole enough to commit. Posole ($6) is a simple pork and hominy soup that is made all the more special and interesting by the accompaniments: wedges of lime, fresh diced white onions and shredded cabbage. Crisp corn tortillas act as the “crackers” that soften into a chewy, almost noodle-like texture. Add as much or as little of that stuff as you like and dig in, pulling out large, tender shreds of meat and chewy corn. Also worth mention was the lovely cobalt-streaked bowl it came in. I had to know who made the soup. When I asked, I was presented with the cutest little mama. I tried, in my halting Spanish, to express my appreciation.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where the only language spoken is one you don’t speak, I suggest learning one phrase in as many languages as possible in order to be prepared: "This is delicious, thank you!" Believe me, the ear-to-ear smile she gave me for the compliment was almost as good as the food.