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Inchilada Heaven

BY BEN VERHILLE | OCTOBER 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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When it comes to Mexican food, would you rather have authenticity or taste?

Sometimes, you just can't have both. Especially so in my last excursion into the Mexican-cuisine realm.

I went to a lesser-known venue, maybe due to its location or lack of salsa-dance nights, but definitely a better flavor than before.

Walking in to El Banditos, 327 E. Market St., one of the first things I noticed was Michael Jackson playing in the background. Not exactly my idea of an authentic Mexican restaurant. But then again, they celebrate Margarita Monday and Tequila Tuesday harder than I could ever pretend to. All-day margarita specials? Dang, they might be on to something.

Surprise No. 2 came when my server was whiter than queso. Extremely polite, but I was losing faith fast in this place.

The value in this restaurant seems to come from the quality of ingredients. Boasting proud use of local farms and their ingredients, El Banditos originally came from Des Moines and opened in Iowa City because of the extensive and world-renowned quality of Iowa farms. In particular, Solon's Pavelka Point and Decorah's Grass Run Farms are used in the entrées.

Sometimes, the use of these specialty plates can limit the range of the restaurant and can build dependence on the ingredients. This leaves the quality of the plates, and entire restaurant, subject to outside influence — a concern for many locally based restaurants.

But then I looked at the menu and realized this place has more options than I originally thought.

I'm tired of writing about or eating burritos, so I went with an enchilada. And contrary to most of my reviews, this one is vegetarian friendly — the spinach and portobello mushroom enchilada.

It just sounds sexy, and my mouth was watering the second I finished reading that line.

My first impression of the plate was that it was loaded down with toppings. It took me a second to find the enchilada in the middle of the liberal serving of lettuce, pico, sour cream, rice, and beans.

The appearance of the enchilada wasn't anything to brag about, either. It looked a little flat and maybe hastily prepared.

But then I took a bite. And like a kid with a scraped knee, I came back crying.

The portobello mushroom is a genius idea for the main ingredient. In a city that focuses on such basic staples as chicken, beef, and steak, Banditos stands out just because of this. At least to me, street after street of similar plates bore me.

The melted cheese sauce on top just further complements the textures inside. Between the tender bite of the portobello, the slight crunch of the tortilla, and the spinach for just a little extra, I couldn't have been more satisfied with the flavor and texture. One of the best enchiladas I've had since Mexico, but probably a little higher quality.

Now, they just need to persuade others with the plate's appearance and name recognition.


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