Cielito Lindo: Pretty Little Heaven (euphemism for "darling" and the title of a Mariachi classic)
"Table for two?" the server asks. But the well-dressed couple responds, "No, actually we thought this was a Japanese place." And from the outside, you might think that 4702 Forest Hill Ave. is still the home of Japan House. There is no sign to indicate that the ownership and cuisine have changed. But Manager Stephen Johnson says that when owners Betsy and José Roman get back from Mexico, a new sign will complete the renovations that started with the interior in November. The décor is elegant, with sombrero-shaped booths, devotional candles and statuary tucked into niches above the bar.
While the atmosphere may be graceful and understated, especially for a Mexican place, the service was less than elegant. Our young waiter bordered on pestering, interrupting our conversations with, "I hate to keep bugging you guys, but I've got nothing better to do." Yes, that may be, but we do. A nonchalant, overly familiar attitude isn't what most people are looking for.
The food, however, is fantastic. Entrees range from $5 to $13, and portions are large. Presentations are vibrant, and the sauces are well-prepared, from the complexities of mole to the tang of salsa verde. Everything we tried was tasty and satisfying, including the dessert options, tres leches cake and pumpkin flan (a rarity at Mexican venues).
The patio should be a boon to the Westover Hills neighborhood, along with live mariachi music every Thursday night. This is a good place to enjoy dinner with a group of friends when you feel like Mexican food but also want a slightly more upscale dining room in which to enjoy it.
El Caporal: The Chief (cowboy slang, as in "head honcho")
Speedy Gonzales is a cultural stereotype that many Mexican joints capitalize on to emphasize the speed of their service. Arriba, arriba, andele! Never had I experienced this to the extreme that I did at El Caporal, where Speedy is the namesake of the special combination menu. No more than five minutes after we had placed our orders, the food arrived at the table. With a big smile, our waiter exclaimed: "Here you are, amigos! More Coke?" And returned in I swear on my life 30 seconds with a refill.
My pregnant wife had decided she wasn't very hungry, so she ordered only a taco. She changed her mind after finding it to be quite delicious and asked for another. The server's response? "No problemo!" He returned in less than a minute with another plate. We repeated this dance a couple of times until Nicole had satisfied her prenatal hunger; the waiter never lost his smile or his pace. Bear in mind that this was all taking place in a packed restaurant on a Saturday night at 8. The owner could be seen running the floor staff, wiping down tables and moving a booth to look for a lost purse.
The food was absolutely standard in its presentation, quality and flavor. The enchiladas were dressed in a snappy roja sauce and smothered in cheese. The tacos were crisp and loaded with ground beef. The rellenos oozed cheese like lava. But a highlight was the steak el Caporal, which sizzled on an iron platter and was covered in grilled onions, peppers and plump shrimp. Paired with sour cream and served in a tiny fried tortilla bowl alongside steamed tortillas, it was plentiful and a steal at $13 (which tops out the price range).
It's family-owned and -operated, and it feels that way. Here everyone calls you amigo, and you get the impression they mean it.
El Caporal ($) 1417 East Ridge Road 673-1090 Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.