Half of an ear of corn coated in a much-too-generous layer of mayo and studded with rust spots of spice landed on a plastic plate in front of me. ‘Elote’: an appetizer of corn smothered in mayonnaise, cotija queso, and chili powder. It can be ordered on a stick or in a cup. It looks like a kid’s creation.
“How’s your sangria?” I asked, thinking the bite of alcohol might combat the lethargy-inducing mayonnaise.
“Umm…I’m not a fan. I mean, it’s not Carlo Rossi, but it’s not great,” the waiter said.
El Gallo Blanco is indeed upfront and unapologetic about its mediocrity.
“I’ll try the horchata.”
Sandwiched between Kalamazoo Easy Car Mart and Ted Brooks Archery, in the perpetual parking lot that is the urban sprawl along Portage Road sits El Gallo Blanco. A cheap, unassuming, slightly kitschy restaurant providing dine in and take-out Mexican food.
It’s a casual place. Cases of soda and Jarritos are stacked rather carelessly in the corner next to the entrance, some half empty. Shiny packages of Mexican candy and 99-cent bags of chicharrones line the shelf by the register. Two imposing 4-gallon jugs sit on the front counter–one containing horchata.
The waiter sloshed the beverage in a plastic cup and stuck in a paper-capped straw as he set it on the table. Their version of the spiced rice milk is not too sweet and just grainy enough with residual rice particles. Vanilla and cinnamon come through the sweetness subtly, making it a perfect accompaniment to a dish with some heat.
Though the informality of the place will inspire a 20-year-old to scrunch up their straw wrapper and animate it with a bead of water (look mom! It’s alive), El Gallo Blanco offers a wide variety of decent options with a few things done well at a truly unbeatable price.
Even if you usually default to the ‘three taco combination platter’, plan to spend more than a few minutes with the menu. Three glossy, oversized pages of ‘Apperitivos!,’ ‘Bebidas!,’ ’Platillos!’ and ‘Combinaciones!’ are offered.
The menu goes beyond the typical Mexican dishes one might expect to find in the Midwest – enchiladas, tortas, tacos, tostadas and fajitas – to include a few more intriguing items. Tampiquena (Flank Steak with refried beans, rice, grilled onions, guacamole, cactus, and a chorizo/bean taco), Milanesa (Fried breaded steak and or chicken served with refried beans, white rice, cooked cactus, and your choice of tortillas), and Beef Tongue, available a la carte.
Owner Esteban Blanco, son of a Mexican immigrant and seasonal worker, uses family recipes learned from his father for many of these specialties. He offers more regional options (like nopales, and lengua) than the typical Mexican Restaurant in the Midwest to dismantle generalizations about Mexican food. No, not everything is picante.
The wait staff is informal but attentive. Though he seems to be responsible for all six tables on our side of the restaurant and has beads of sweat lining his forehead, our waiter checks in often. “Todo bien? Nesecita algo?” He arrives at the table balancing five plates on the length of his left arm, a sixth held in his right hand.
El Gallo Blanco offers serious bang for your buck. Order a variety of a la carte items for less than $2 each, or get the grande burrito ($4.99), or six flautas ($7.49). Spend less that ten dollars and leave stuffed, Styrofoam box in hand (mine weighed over a pound). El Gallo Blanco isn’t the place to dine if you’re looking for a delicate fish taco topped with a fresh slaw and a lime wedge. And don’t expect a contemporary menu with sections denoting vegetarian options.
Do expect to leave full, and possibly charmed by the casual eatery. The Spanish emanating from the back kitchen, the plastic dishware, and the forthright meals offer a no-frills experience that satisfies a craving for a departure from tired American flavors.