El Palmar: Secrets of the sauce

El Palmar Mexican Restaurant

2452 Mission Ave.
Carmichael, CA 95608

(916) 488-8320

Five years ago around this time, El Palmar Mexican restaurant appeared in SN&R’s Best of Sacramento issue. It was lauded for offering the Best Mexican food and margaritas in Carmichael (it’s unclear, however, from the blurb just how intense the competition was it beat out for such a singular—and geographically specific—title).

Half a decade ago, brothers Jorge and Eli Oceguera operated out of a former Dairy Queen on El Camino Avenue. Now, El Palmar offers a far larger oasis as the anchor tenant in a moribund shopping mall at Mission and El Camino, across the street from its original location.

Entering El Palmar, its beige interior highlighted with cranberry upholstery triggers a sharp flash of déjà vu all over again. Then the memory returns: This is the locale of some post-game kid-team-sporting event with daughter Katie.

While Katie’s certainly changed, El Palmar doesn’t appear to have—except it’s now a bit drabber and a bit more worn. Several dark wood chairs are nicked pretty solidly, and the principal wall decoration remains early brand-name-beer neon, although from top designers like Corona, Modelo and Coors Light.

The place might be a little tired, but it is tidy. And here’s where El Palmar excels: Once ordering is accomplished, the personnel catapult into a feverish overdrive that mere mortals couldn’t maintain. Indeed, there’s scarcely time for a second or two of chit—let alone chit and chat—before a large oval plate, half filled with rice and beans, arrives.

The two most interesting sections of El Palmar’s menu are its “especiales” and “mariscos.” Neither is represented on the more mundane lunch menu, but there are five huevos options—the shredded beef machaca and the chorizo are two standouts—not present among the evening offerings.

Inevitably, the huevos are served with rice and beans. At dinner, for those who prefer a more balanced diet, spend the extra $1 and get a salad, because most of the entrees don’t offer a speck of greens or vegetables, other than what’s in the salsa. Solamente arroz, frijoles y el entree.

Despite such a lack of greens, the $9.25 basil chicken is memorable. Given its unique and appealing flavor, management is understandably cagey on the precise list of ingredients, but the sauce seems centered around orange juice and the basil adds a sweet yang to the citrus yin. The thinly sliced medallions of chicken are charred at the edges but still tender in their interior. Again, would that there were some chopped onions, shredded lettuce and a bit of epazote to more fully reward the effort of wrapping the chicken into tortillas. Still, it’s possible to kick the proceedings up an octave by asking for (and liberally applying) a far smokier and far hotter salsa that’s kept sequestered in the kitchen, just waiting for someone to call on it.

Seek and ye shall find, the Good Book sayeth.

On future visits, waiters offer a knowing nod when they see they’re serving a crafty grizzled veteran already hip to hitting them up for the “good stuff.” Besides a mildly echoing after-burn, this “good stuff” also has a thicker consistency. This same quality is also found in the $11.25 shrimp a la Diabla, which, found elsewhere—Teuila Museo Mayahuel downtown comes to mind—is more brothlike than El Palmar’s opaque, syrupy rendition.

If you want something that’s more on broth end of the spectrum, try the camarones Veracruz: Shrimp sautéed with bell pepper, tomatoes and onion.

The cervezas son muy frias—I had a cold beer—as well as margaritas strong enough to elicit a clear-the-cobwebs head shake on the first sip.

The joint is hopping on a Friday night with most of the tables filled. The crowd looks to be getting what they want: swiftly served simple Mexican fare that fills the stomach but doesn’t frighten gringo sensibilities.