For the 16 years I’ve lived on the Near East Side, Williamson Street has never had a bona fide Mexican taqueria. And it turns out, it’s something that was sorely needed.
Eldorado Grill, on the West end of Willy, is a longtime favorite, but is more Southwestern, more Tex-Mex.
Reyna Gonzalez opened El Sabor de Puebla, or “A Taste of Puebla,” in April in a house across from the once-BP and now Spirit station, where Cafe Costa Rica used to be.
Gonzalez’s 13-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was helping out when I stopped in opening week and told me her mother’s specialty was her homemade tamales.
I was back recently for those tamales. It was early on a weeknight and the restaurant was fairly quiet. An older daughter, Arely, said that outdoor seating is coming, but in the meantime, we sat in a sunny spot near a window and were quite comfortable.
The tables were decked out with sumptuous vases of fresh flowers, bigger bouquets than I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. Also attractive were the striped Mexican blankets hanging in the archways and windows in lieu of curtains.
Fortunately, the off-putting chips and salsa served before our meal were no harbinger of what was to come, because we liked everything we ordered off the menu. The thin, light-colored chips tasted stale, some more than others. The salsa tasted not of summer, but mostly just of salt.
Still, it’s admirable that El Sabor de Puebla serves complimentary chips and salsa before meals when so many other places have started charging for them.
Tamales come two on a combo platter with rice and beans, but we ordered them a la carte ($2) so we could try all three, which that night were green salsa with chicken, red salsa with pork, and jalapeño and cheese. The jalapeño one was best because it was more novel, but I enjoyed each one. It’s the rare tamale that has enough stuffing. These came close but could have used more.
The dish I coveted, though, was my companion’s fajitas poblanas de pollo ($10.50), a sizable fajita platter filled with choice strips of chicken, thin slices of poblano peppers, and grilled onions, covered with mozzarella cheese.
What puzzled me was that she was served the dish when I was told they were out of chile rellenos, or stuffed poblano peppers. But as my friend suggested, maybe the poblanos were already cut for her dish. Seemed improbable, but possible.
The mild chili peppers originated in the Mexican state of Puebla, where Gonzalez is from, so it makes sense that they showed up in the fajitas. The poblano-heavy menu also features mole poblano and a burrito poblano. Poblano lovers like me will rejoice.
We tried two appetizers that you don’t see on every taqueria menu, and both were just shy of successful. The tlacoyos ($4.99) was a thick, oval platform of grilled corn dough stuffed with a thin layer of refried beans, and topped with lots and lots of raw onion and a choice of meat. I chose beef and quickly realized it was a bad move.
The beef, which the restaurant interchangeably refers to as steak, was cut in tiny cubes, which couldn’t disguise how fatty they were. The delicious tomatillo salsa underneath the meat gave the whole thing a nice, spicy quality. Next time, I’d order it with chorizo or chicken.
The smaller picaditas Mexicanas ($3.50) was like a sope or a little Mexican pizza with a semi-thick, pinched pastry-type crust and topped with red sauce, raw onion and the same queso fresco.
I went back the following week for lunch and was able to order the chile rellenos, but after all that anticipation, was underwhelmed. It was a traditional preparation, but light on the cheese and heavy on the egg batter.
My companions, however, were overjoyed with their meals. One, who had camarones a la diabla ($11.50), or shrimp in a fiery chipotle sauce, called it some of the best Mexican food she’s had in Madison.
The other, who doesn’t really eat spicy food, had chicken enchiladas ($9.50), and they had too much kick for him. Still, he was undeterred and said he found the food fresh and authentic.
I couldn’t help but be disappointed again with the chips, which certainly didn’t seem fresh. But the salsa appealed to me more this time, with less salt and more cilantro.
On that first visit, our server said they were out of dessert because the restaurant had been so busy. The second time, I was really hoping for some flan, but again, no luck.
It was good to hear that the place has been busy. I’m not surprised it has been well received in a restaurant-row neighborhood that has been receiving restaurants well for years.