Cocina fresca

Ernesto’s is one of those restaurants that has been around forever but is somehow easy to overlook. If you have a hankering for good Mexican food with a healthier twist, though, it’s worth moving Ernesto’s up to the top of your list of restaurants to visit.

In some areas, you actually can classify the Mexican restaurants in the area by regional cuisine or by whether they specialize in seafood or grilled meats. In the Sacramento metropolitan area, a majority of the Mexican joints serve the same menu, with only a few variations here and there: carne asada, carnitas, chile verde and chile colorado, burritos, enchiladas, tacos and maybe a shrimp dish if you’re lucky. And, for the most part, these dishes taste the same no matter where you go.

Ernesto’s strays from the pack with some important variations. For one thing, the restaurant has a substantial list of vegetarian items, such as Navajo quesadillas and fajitas. And, even if you opt for a carnivorous selection, a fair amount of the menu is heart-healthy. The healthier and the spicier selections are marked in the menu to make them easier to find. Even if you order a deep-fried chimichanga, though, the ingredients retain their freshness, and entrees are served with fresh lettuce, tomatoes and avocado.

The restaurant is pleasantly appointed, with adobe-styled walls and paper cutout decorations hanging from the ceiling. A large photograph of Frida Kahlo graces one wall. Ernesto’s also has an outdoor dining area, separated from the street by a woven iron railing. The service is friendly, and our food arrived with record speed. Unfortunately, one dish we ordered was not the dish we received. The error was remedied quickly, however. A request for a salsa refill was acknowledged and then forgotten.

Unlike most restaurants, Ernesto’s serves its complimentary chips with salsa and refried beans, a nice touch. The salsa is better than average, with a citrusy tang and enough heat to be noticeable without burning your taste buds right off your tongue. Ernesto’s is known for its margaritas, including a version with blue curaçao, and my personal favorite, the Green Iguana, made with Midori.

Almost every Mexican restaurant serves a version of nachos. Ernesto’s goes one better, though, by offering its nacho appetizer with a choice of chicken or beef served either grilled or colorado, or carnitas ($6.99-$8.49). The platter of nachos is enormous; far more than three people could eat. The tortillas are buried under layers of beans, cheese and meat, with dollops of guacamole and sour cream. We ordered the beef colorado version, and the morsels of meat were tender and flavorful, one of the better versions of chile colorado I’ve had in a while.

Most of the entrees fall into the “humongous” category and would test the fortitude of even the hardiest eater. People with lighter appetites might opt for one of the soups on the menu, such as the familiar albondigas or the not-so-familiar shrimp and rice soup. Ernesto’s also offers a variety of main-course salads, such as shrimp or chicken taco salad.

The shrimp chimichanga ($9.99) is definitely not for the light eater; the enormous fried burrito explodes with tiger shrimp, grilled onions and mushrooms. The crowning touch is the ubiquitous sour cream and guacamole. Although the shrimp seemed a little too salty, the dish was tasty as a whole.

The Veracruz shrimp ($11.99) was outstanding. The enormous tiger shrimp were perfectly cooked, plump and juicy and retained that sweetness you only get with really fresh shrimp. The lemon-infused pasilla chile sauce was the perfect counterpoint to that sweetness, especially when matched with the grilled onions and mushrooms. The dish came with rice, beans and homemade flour tortillas. The tortillas, though a little thick, still were much better than store-bought ones.

Ernesto’s does Mexican food better than 90 percent of the restaurants out there, and the service is fast, reasonably efficient and very friendly. Ernesto’s also is one of the few places you can go to indulge a jones for Mexican food and appease your conscience. But, with a clientele as devoted as Ernesto’s is, it would be a step forward if the restaurant would take a few chances with its menu. Why not throw in some regional dishes not commonly seen around here, at least as specials? That would be a low-risk move with a high payoff.