In the large, open dining room of El Rodeo, I sat by a painted mural of what appeared to be a successful serenade in progress. Near the front counter, a woman sat at a table evaluating me as if I was serenading her granddaughter. After the server took my order, the abuela ambled behind the counter and began patting out some fresh tortillas.
El Rodeo’s dining room has echoing tiled floors, heavy wooden tables and chairs, two televisions, and an army of fans hanging from the high ceiling. At one end an exterior facade, complete with roof tiles, gives the impression that you’re outside. It’s a clean and pleasant space. On my next visit, the tortilla-pattin’ grandma offered me a “Buenos tardes.”
The South Valley isn’t short on Mexican restaurants, but El Rodeo, which opened about four months ago, deserves a try. The personal touch in those fresh tortillas can be found on nearly every level. The pico de gallo is fresh, thick and ruby red. The orange juice is fresh-squeezed. The side salad that arrives with all of the plates has slices of avocado and orange.
Some of the dishes on the menu are unfamiliar, like pork ribs cooked with cactus pads. Strips of cactus, or nopales, and big, juicy chunks of pork come drenched in a thin chipotle sauce that’s spicy and smoky. Also new to me are mole enchiladas, served rolled. The mole is Poblano-style, complex and fragrant, with a hint of nuts, a tickling of chile, moments of soft bitterness and mild, almost fruity sweetness. This decadent dish comes together perfectly in conjunction with soupy beans and dry, light red rice.
The lingua and cabeza are succulent and full-flavored. The barbacoa is too, with an acid edge and a faint whiff of clove.
Elsewhere on the menu, a bowl of albóndigas in chicken-based broth is full of carrots, potatoes and big celery sticks. The albóndigas, or Mexican meatballs, are light and tasty, with potato and herbs mixed in. Another soup, siete mares, has a spicy, mildly tomatoey broth that distills the ocean’s flavor thanks to an abundance of fish, mussels, shrimp, squid and octopus. Garnished with fresh onions, cilantro and lime, it’s one of the better bowls of siete mares in town. Similar praise belongs to a fried whole tilapia. The interior flesh is chalky white, the outside perfectly crisp with lime wedges inserted into hash marks. Less impressive are the chile rellenos—though large and brimming with gooey asadero cheese, the chiles lack flavor. Smoked pork chops taste good but are a bit chewy. That said, I didn’t try anything that was disappointing, and the obvious care that went into the cooking and plating of the food won me over.
The name El Rodeo has a Wild West kind of feeling, but things stayed pretty mellow during all of my visits—not even a mariachi band strayed in. However, if the place ever did get rowdy, my money’s on the tortilla-pattin’ grandma to get it under control.