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Buenos Nachos Charro's Chipotle's Chuy's Cinco de Mayo Durangos El Espolon El Toro Elios
Hacienda Jalapeno Local Taco Maria's Mariachi Mi Mexico Q'doba Rancho Tapatio
chili peppers Mexican has become Lexington's favorite cuisine. It began with Chi Chi's, which opened in 1972 and prospered for 30 years. Chi Chi's was not authentic Mexican. It was Corporate Mexican, tailored for American tastes. But Chi Chi's introduced Central Kentucky to El Grande Burros, Taco Soup, Enchiladas and Fried Ice Cream. Today, most Mexican outlets are independent family owned restaurants. They continue to grow in popularity because of their low cost, lively tastes and colorful decor. The 16 Mexican outlets are the most of any local restaurant type, and several have multiple locations. Several of these restaurants specialize in particular Mexican regional cuisine : Guadalajara, Bajio, Monterey, etc. And the trend is away from Americanized, toward authentic village cooking, which uses more vegetables and less cheese. There are several restaurants on this page which broaden the usual definition of Mexican, especially Chuy's, Local Taco and Elios. There are also Caribbean restaurants, which we cover on the Africarib page. The photo abovet is of the Tezpotlan Village Market. At right are Poblano Peppers, used in Chile Relennos.
El Charro's is Lexington's least known Mexican restaurant. It is out at the county line on the west side of Harrodsburg Road. But it's worth the drive because this is a very good restaurant. It's one of the New Wave Mexican outlets in that it serves much lighter, less salty food, with less cheese and more vegetables. They make their own salsas, sauces and tortillas. The trio of complimentary salsas include avocado, tomatillos, jalapenos, chiles and other ingredients. Their housemade Mole has a clean, fresh taste and includes clear flavors of cinnamon and cloves not overwhelmed by the chocolate. We think they do an outstanding job with their Pork entrees. The two Chile dishes, Chile Verde and Chile Colorado, are especially good. These are really stews. The only difference is that one comes in green sauce, the other red. Both feature tender pork tips in a tomatillo citrus base, chicken broth and peppers, served with rice and beans. El Charro serves an outstanding Chili Relleno, which we usually use to compare restaurants. There's a Vegetarian Menu, with such items as Soy Quesadilla, Spinach Quesadilla, Veggie Fajita and Soy Burrito. The Fajitas El Charro may be the best buy on the menu : Chicken, Steak, Mexican Sausage and Shrimp grilled with onion, green pepper and tomato and served with rice, beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and a house made tortilla. Seafood lovers like the Mariscolandia : shrimp, fish and scallops with chopped onion, red yellow and green peppers, lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and rice. Even the Coffee's good. Charro's

The University Club on Leestown Road sounds like a mistake, but it's not. Elios's Latino restaurant on South Broadway became so popular he was invited by the University Club to take over the restaurant in its clubhouse (photo, left). So now Elios has a much larger kitchen plus a complete bar (wines, beers, mixed drinks). Technically, the restaurant is now called The Rabbit Hole. His menu is still a blend of Puerto Rican, Dominican Republican and Mexican. It still includes the famous Chicken/Pork Tacos, Cheese/Pork/ Chicken Quesadillas, and his famous Veggie Burrito, considered by lovers of Latino food as the finest burrito in town. It's large enough to make two meals for most people. Elios goes beyond just Mexican, but most advocates consider his the finest Latino food in Central Kentucky. For golfers with different tastes, he's added hot dogs and various sandwiches. Beverages include hot chocolate, coffee, powerade and Arnold Palmers (a mix of iced tea and lemonade).

Chuy's doesn't claim to be Mexican. It's 1950s Arizona and New Mexico : formica, pastel colors, black and white floor tiles and auto art. A 1956 Pontiac (see photo top left) trunk offers fresh Salsas, thin crisp Nacho, and smooth and creamy Refried Beans. You get six sauces of varying heat. We find the Tomatillo Sauce delightful even though it's very mild. We love the Tortilla Soup (chicken broth, roast chicken, avocado, green chiles, tomatoes, cheese, cilantro and thin tortilla strips). It has a very clean and fresh taste. For Rellenos they use Anaheim (New Mexican Magdalena) peppers rather than Marconi or Poblanos used by their rivals. Anaheims are milder and sweeter with thinner walls and make fine Rellenos. Chuy's offers cheese, ground sirloin, chicken or shrimp for filling. The Special Enchilada (blue corn tortilla stacked with roast chicken, cheese, tomatillo sauce and sour cream) is a favorite among regulars. Fajitas are served cut but not separated so you basically get chicken breast and small sirloin semiwhole on a bed of onions and serrano peppers. The meats have been marinated all night in beer, lime juice and spices. Lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, pico de gallo, rice and refried beans come as sides so you can stuff the tortillas with them or use them to garnish the fajitas. Chuy's offers huge Burritos and very good Margaritas. Their Texas Martini is worth ordering just to taste the jalapeno stuffed olives. Quirky and creative, Chuy's has its own cult.

chipotle Chipotle bills itself as "fast casual" Mexican food. It was originally a McDonalds brand but has since been spun off into its own company. Chipotle's menu consists of five items: burritos, fajita burritos, burrito bowls, tacos, and salads, with a choice of chicken, pork carnitas, barbacoa, steak, or vegetarian (with guacamole). The price of the items is based on the type of meat chosen. Additional toppings include rice, beans, four types of salsa, sour cream, cheese, or lettuce. Owner Steve Ells says "It's important to keep the menu focused, because if you just do a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else." Chipotle sells beer and margaritas in addition to soft drinks and fruit drinks. Quesadillas are made on request, though they are not listed on the menu. Chipotle has a modern, industrial, stainless steel and sheet metal and glass look. There's a patio, as shown at left, and lots of big windows you can look out of while eating inside. The Black Bean Burrito is their best item.
Cinco de Mayo is right next to Joe Bologna's. It offers a patio and garden, seen here, and even better, a parking lot, very rare between campus and downtown. The inside has skipped the usual festive Mexican decor and gone with a sleek, 21st Century look. Their four Dips are outstanding : Cheese, Guacamole, Bean and Pico Queso. They offer four Soups : Chicken, Beef, Seafood and Vegetable, all good, but you have to jump up and down and pound on the table to make your waiter understand that you want a cup not a large bowl, and you want it before, as an appetizer, not with your entree. Those at our table liked their Chimichanga, Carnitas (pork tips), Carne Asada (grilled steak on a bed of onions and bell peppers with pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream), Texas Fajita Quesadillas (grilled steak, chicken, shrimp, onions, peppers with cheese), and Flame Grilled Tilapia (served with shrimp, pico de gallo, cheese, asparagus, lettuce and baked potatoes). However, we all loved their Molcajetes (grilled beef, chicken, shrimp, jalapenos and chorizo (pork sausage) served in a heated stone bowl with salsa, avocado and lime. This is an ancient Mayan / Aztec dish. The bowl is of pure black lava and once heated back in the kitchen, it stays hot throughout your meal, meaning the food within it stays hot. The Sopapillas are a fine dessert. Their Sangria is good, and they have Jarritos, the Mexican soda. If you prefer alcohol, try their Jalapeno Margarita or Patron Margarita. Cinco de Mayo
Durango's Durango's is the oldest family run Mexican restaurant in Lexington. It has lasted 35 years by keeping its menu simple and doing an outstanding job with classic items. This is down home Peninsula cooking, heavily seafood oriented. Many Lexingtonians rank these Chile Rellenos the best in town. They are tightly stuffed banana peppers cooked in a tomato sauce. Durango's soups are great, especially their Caldo de Pollo (chicken/vegetable/ rice) and Caldo de Camarones (shrimp/vegetable/rice). House Specialties include Camarones Durango (shrimp shishkebab with peppers, onions, tomatoes, lobster sauce and rice pilaf) and Filete de Pescado (grilled catfish marinated in olive oil and garlic). There are five Vegetarian Plates, including Vegetales Fajitas (grilled vegetables with guacamole and sour cream), and Burrito de Vegetales (tortilla filled with grilled fresh vegetables, sour cream, cheese and tomato sauce). Durango's also offers five great Mexican style steaks.
El Espolon hides over on Jefferson Street, unnoticed by most Lexington restaurant goers. That is a mistake. For Cesar Rodriguez includes some appealing items. The corn chips seem homemade. They're delicious. So is the very mild salsa. . Espolon offers a nightly special. Monday night is a Molcajete, a volcanic bowl like those in any Mexican village but rarely seen in the U.S. Thinly sliced grilled chicken, steak and veggies are served in these bowls, a Mexican version of the Dutch Oven or Indian Tagine. It's worth coming to Espolon just for a Molcajete. However, the other nightly specials --- Chimichangas, Carne Azada, La Bandera ( one Chili Relleno, Enchilada and Chimichanga), Jumbo Burrito, Quesadillas, etc.) --- are also good. Four Brunch specials worth trying : Huevos Con Chorizo (eggs and Mexican sausage scrambled with rice and beans), Carne Azada Con Huevos (thin slices of steak with two eggs, rice and beans), Huevos Rancheros (eggs, salsa, rice and beans), and Chilaquiles (fried tortillas topped with green or red salsa, shredded chicken and cheese). The Chicken, Shrimp, Steak and Pork entrees are all good. There are five kinds of Nachos and 19 kinds of Fajitas. Service is shaky; many servers don't seem to know what they're doing.
Jalapeno's Jalapenos is larger than most of their rivals so booths allow more privacy and conversation. They have all the traditional menu items, but some which are unique. Appetizers include more seafood. There's a Seafood Quesadilla, Marinated Shrimp, Tostada Crab & Shrimp, and Sauteed Shrimp or Scallop. They also have more soups : Chicken, Bean/Bacon/Cilantro, Corn/Avocado/Cilantro, and Shrimp Soup served with vegetables, rice and avocado. We particularly recommend the Corn and Shrimp soups. The Jalapeno Salad, which includes crisp greens, tomatoes and cheese, is a favorite among weight watchers. If you're big on Mexican breakfasts, Jalapeno's offers Huevos con Chorizo and Huevos Rancheros on the lunch menu. Vegetarians appreciate touches like the Spinach Enchiladas, Spinach Quesadillas, Vegetarian Fajitas and Potato/Cheese/Rice Burritos. We like their Chile Rellenos, which lean toward the traditional Mexican style rather than some of the more creative versions offered elsewhere. Jalapenos offers five full steaks and a shish kebab entree, but we think they're at their best with seafood. They offer four Shrimp entrees plus Baby Red Snapper, Tilapia, and Salmon. There's a kids menu. The Jalapeno Margarito is unique.
Mi Pequena Hacienda is the closest thing to an authentic Mexican village or neighborhood restaurant Lexington has. All its rivals are in shopping centers or business zones. Hacienda is in a residential area, and has become a hangout for locals. While you're eating, familiars will greet each other and the staff at the bar or as they are seated at tables. There is a real feeling of camaraderie here. However, that wouldn't be true if the food hadn't brought them back enough times. The Chile Pablanos, their interpretation of Rellenos, use the much larger Pablano peppers. They don't use the sauces of their rivals but they can fit a lot more filling in. They're definitely worth ordering. But Hacienda takes great pride in its Grilled Tilapia Fillets, Seafood Burrito, Fish Taco, Cactus Jack Quesadilla, and Tequila Baby Back Ribs. The El Grande Burro is Huge !! Hacienda
Local Taco Local Taco is a Global Fusion restaurant. It blends Tex Mex, Southern and Asian cuisines. The ambience needs work. You place your order, find a table, then come back to pick up your food. The cashier is notoriously sullen and disinterested. Tables are crammed too closely together and prices are a bit high for a college campus hangout. But you should still go, because the food is creative and tasty. They use as much local produce as possible and make everything in house. Some patrons complain that the tacos are too small, but everyone agrees that they're delicious. The Guacamole contains avocado, onion and tomato and is one of the best dips in the city. As a general rule, choose a taco entree. The Brisket Taco (with a sweet marinade), Korean BBQ (with pickled jalapeno sauce), Fish Taco (the tartar sauce is great), Chicken Taco (lime marinade and tomatillo sauce) and Veggie Taco (mushrooms, zucchini, squash, cabbage and rice) are all great. The best deal is four Tacos for $10. Their Enchiladas are not nearly as good. Margaritas are hand squeezed and excellent. Local Taco is on Limestone Street, a block up from Kennedy Bookstore.
Maria's started out as a North Broadway shack with three picnic tables. After eight years, Maria has moved down the block to a tiny strip mall location at the corner of North Broadway and Loudon. There is zero ambience; the major decoration is a picture of Elvis. The staff speak mainly Mestizo Spanish and service is sketchy --- it depends on who you get. But everyone agrees Maria serves the most authentic Mexican food in town, if not in the state. This is not Corporate Mexican, TexMex, or CaliMex. It's Street Mex, what you would buy from one of the sidewalk vendors in Mexico City. For starters, you should order a Mexican Coke, which is made with cane sugar, not fructose as the American version. The taste difference is significant. Maria is famous for her Gorditos (sort of a pita pocket stuffed with cheese or meat), Nopales (cactus with spines removed, finely chopped, baked with tomatoes and onions), Adobada (pork marinated with herbs and red chiles and topped with cilantro and onions), Barbacca (beef tongue braised in mustard, avocado, chopped onions and cilantro)), Huevo Con Chile (an omelette containing diced jalapeno and tomato) and Chicharron rojo (pork cooked in red chile pepper sauce). But there are lots of other entrees : Flautas, Enchiladas, Fajitas, etc. The Platters include refried beans, rice and salad. Maria'sialso bakes the best Tres Leches (three milk cake) in town. In addition to Mexican Cokes, Maria's offers Jumex, a Mexican juice with flavors like Mango, Guava and Tamarind. Maria now uses the kitchen in the old shack to prepare her tacos, tortillas, burritos, etc. for the restaurant. maria's
El Mariachi El Mariachi is out of the way for most Lexingtonians, located on Leestown Road nerar New Circle. But it's worth the trek across town. The basic salsa they bring with their chips is dark and spicy, livelier than elsewhere in Lexington. But there's a companion dish of White Salsa, which is also quite lively. You'll be drinking plenty of water. If the house salsas are too spicy, try the Choriqueso, a mellow cheese dip. Among the appetizers, we like the Carnitas, fried pork tips. They're especially good dipped in one of the salsas or the Choriqueso. On our usual test for Mexican restaurants, Chile Rellenos and Fajitas, Mariachi scores well. They call their rellenos Chiles Pablanos. They use large mild poblano chiles, stuff them with Oaxaca cheese, batter and fry. The Fajitas are standard shrimp, chicken, beef, onions, peppers and spices sizzling on an iron skillet, with guacamole and sour cream on the side. El Mariachi has the best Mexican dessert in town : Xango. They stuff a large burrito with cream cheese and cinammon and bake it. Like its rivals, the interior is bright and lively, but this one is also very spacious, making it appear larger than it really is.

Mexican restaurants keep coming and going in the space above Charlie Brown's on Euclid Avenue in Chevy Chase. Marcos Valdez is the latest to try his luck, with Papi's. Valdez is a longtime chef at Japapeno's and he's brought his mother and family along from Vera Cruz to help in the kitchen. The menu is somewhat different. It shows some seafood influences since Vera Cruz is along the Gulf of Mexico, and some Spanish and Afro-Cuban touches. We were disappointed in their chips. They're bought from the same supplier as almost every other Mexican restaurant serves. Among their dozen Appetizers we like the Pulled Marinated Beef. Be careful if you order one of their four Soups. Their idea of a "small" appetizer cup is a bowl big enough for a whole meal. You have to make it clear that you want a cup not a bowl. However, they're good, especially the Mexican Chicken Soup. Some Mexican traditions, such as Chile Rellenos, are missing. But many of the favorites are here : El Burrito Grande, Fajitas, Enchiladas and Tacos. The Pescado Veracruzana is supposed to be a Vera Cruz style fish. It's prepared very well, in onions, peppers, tomatoes and herbs sauteed in olive oil. Except that Swai is not a Gulf fish; it's Catfish imported from Vietnam. The Chile Verde (pork cooked in tomatillo saice) is excellent, as is the Rajas Poblanas (Pablano peppers cooked in onions anda cream sauce). The Lunch menu features a Chimichanga, Enchilada and Quesadilla. The bar fixes a fine Margarita. Desserts include Fried Mexican Bread, Flan (Mexican custard) and a Caramel - Vanilla- Brandy concoction. A parking garage is right next door.

Mi Mexico

Pepe's Mi Mexico. Mexican restaurants as a group have very colorful interiors, but none compare to Mi Mexico. The furniture, walls, ceilings and floors are all painted in bright glossy hues. Your senses are thoroughly awakened before the menu ever arrives. It is, however, a great menu. The Stuffed Jalapenos are a good start. But they offer several items you just can't get anywhere else. The Pina Rellena is really unique, a pineapple half stuffed with shrimp, scallops, and pineapple chunks, cooked in red sauce, topped with Monterey Jack Cheese. The Caldo de Camaron, made only on weekends, is a shrimp vegetable soup. Their Hawaiin and Pineapple Fajitas are a rare variation in this category. They also offer seven Vegetarian entrees. Their Chili Rellenos are the largest in town and their Refried Beans are the tastiest we've had outside of San Antonio. This is one of the best run restaurants in Lexington and has expanded to three locations.

Rancho Tapatio is part of a growing line of Mexican businesses along Burt Road (off Nicholasville between Lowry and Zandale). There are a bakery, an extensive grocery and a liquor store, all Mexican, all good. But the restaurant is the best. It's probably the least known of the Lex Mex group, but does some things better than its rivals. We really like their Quesadillas. They start with a base version and you can pretty well design your own with cheeses, meats, vegetables, sauces, shrimp and other ingredients,with $9 the top price. They offer Oysters (Ostiones), and a great Cocktail de Cameron with tomato sauce, diced onions, cillantro, avocadoes and your choice of Shrimp or Octopus. This is the only Octopus Cocktail in Kentucky. Their Soup list is the most extensive in town --- seven --- and includes Pozole (pork & hominy), Menudo (beef stomach), Carne en su Jugo (Guadalajaran steak, bacon and bean), Caldode Pollo (chicken vegetable), Caldo de Res (beef vegetable) and Seven Mares (shrimp,octopus, fish,,clams, squid, oysters, crab legs, almajas, scallops, carrots, potatoes, zucchini and celery). The Seven Mares makes a feast for two. They serve Breakfast, but what most restaurants call Huevos Rancheros they call Huevos Mexicana. Desserts include really good Sopapillas and Flan, but the best is their Xangos (Chimicheesecake). Rancho Tapatia
Its loyal supporters consider El Toro's the best Mexican restaurant in town. They come for the Camerones Nortenos (jumbo shrimp stuffed with cheese, bacon wrapped, broiled and basted, served with avocado), Filete de Pescado (grilled catfish marinated in olive oil and garlic), and Fajitas. El Toro's takes great pride in its Fajitas. It serves them sizzling in a skillet with spices and vegetables. It serves 10 Fajita selections but the mix of chicken, steak, shrimp and Mexican sausage is hard to beat. For a different kind of steak, try Bistec Ala Mexicana. They cook it in tomato sauce, onions and peppers. Or settle for the Chiles Rellenos. Save room for the Chimi Cheese, another outrageous dessert. This is a rich and creamy cheesecake wrapped in a pastry tortilla, deep fried until flaky and golden, dusted with cinammon sugar, garnished with iced cream and drizzled with rich caramel.

Qdoba does some very creative things with the basic Mexican menu. We particularly like their Mexican Gumbo, which is a Qdoba creation. You won't find anything like it anywhere else, and we think it alone justifies a Qdoba visit. But there are other reasons. Qdoba uses all local fresh ingredients and makes your order while you watch. There's none of the shipping items in premade and frozen, then quick thawing and heating them in a microwave just before serving. Qdoba's burritos, tacos and quesadillas are made California style, which is more like Mexican and less like Tex Mex. In other words, the taste of the fresh vegetables and herbs comes through without being buried under the heat of peppers and spices. Their Taco Salad is a pile of lettuce and vegetables served in a taco bowl; first you eat the salad, then you eat the bowl. Qdoba lets customers customize your order: first you specify which basics you want, then you choose which additions you want. Qdoba also provides complete nutritional information on each item so if you're dieting or training you can customize your meal. Many students treat this as a carry out restaurant, but there's plenty of room to eat in. During weekday lunchtimes it gets extremely busy. Next to the Coliseum, behind Papa John's.

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