Although Puerto Escondido looks a little tattered and rundown, it features an expansive, creative menu that could make it a convenient go-to spot for Mexican food on the west side.
Luis Gonzalez opened the restaurant in July, next to Selective Video in the forlorn former home of Grand Pagoda.
The space has been vacant since a couple of Chinese restaurants failed there in the mid- to late 1990s. In 2000, then-Dane County Board member Regina Rhyne wanted to open a restaurant and lounge at the site, but it quickly became controversial. The following year a Cambodian restaurant was proposed but never materialized.
Puerto Escondido ("Hidden Port" in English, and a town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is an odd fit for the building, which still has a lot of Asian touches built in.
Renovations have been done on a shoestring. There is no permanent sign out front yet; a banner announces the restaurant.
The neighborhood does have new cachet, given that popular restaurant Bonfyre opened up in a new development not far away.
We sat in a booth overlooking an ersatz garden with lots of fake flowers and some skylights. On one occasion the two TVs mounted on opposite corners were tuned to boxing matches. Part of the ceiling is recessed with pink light, giving it a touch of Vegas.
Gonzalez is a sincere host. On both visits, when we asked for water, we were poured glasses and left with an entire pitcher of ice water on the table. A nice touch.
The guacamole ($3.95), served in a small tortilla shell, is lively and fresh, and a great place to start. On one visit, some of the tortilla chips served with complimentary salsas seemed a little stale, but the salsas -- hot and mild -- were both excellent.
My favorite meal was the grilled tilapia ($10.95), five small, well-seasoned fillets covered with melted cheese and four slices of avocado. It was a beautiful plate with rice, beans, lettuce and tomatoes. Grilled onions and strips of red and green peppers were embedded under the beans and were fiery hot. The corn tortillas served with my meal tasted homemade and should not be passed up.
I'd also recommend the huarache ($5.95), a thick, oblong cornmeal base (shaped like the Mexican sandal) covered with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and a choice of meat. It arrived beautifully zigzagged with sour cream. My companion who ordered it with steak said that the meat was plenty tender and not too fatty.
That wasn't the case with my tampiquena ($8.95), strips of grilled steak that had a wonderful flavor but were ultimately chewy and tough. I loved the grilled onions and whole grilled jalapeno, but could have done without the cactus salad, which didn't taste like much.
Another companion's two large chicken enchiladas Oaxaquena ($7.95) were spicier than most but satisfying, covered in cheese and a small amount of green sauce. Slightly on the salty side, the dish was served with rice and beans, shredded lettuce and tomatoes.
Also worthwhile was the large chicken torta ($6.95). Not as lavish as versions at La Concha or the now-shuttered La Finca, this Mexican sandwich was served on hearty bread and had plenty of meat accompanied by a smattering of cheese, tomatoes, onions, avocado, beans and mayo.
There are a number of options for kids -- chicken fingers, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, tacos and quesadillas. All come with average, medium-cut fries. My 5-year-old, a connoisseur of cheese quesadillas, at first deemed this one too spicy, but eventually ate it without complaint.
Service was fast, but we had some awkward language barriers with our waitress on both occasions.