Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, March 20, 2003
El Rodeo
(Saturday and Sunday only) $4.50
Gorditas $6.50
Guiso de Res $6.75
Tiny Treasure

Don’t blink while driving through the Stockyards — else you’ll miss El Rodeo.


El Rodeo

121 NW 25th and Ellis Sts, FW. 817-625-9861. Tues-Thur 7am-4pm. Fri-Sat 7am-6pm. Sun 7am-6pm. Closed Mon. Cash only.

If you cruise through the commercial district that surrounds the Stockyards — paying too much attention to frontier-camp tourist outlets like The Thirsty Armadillo and The Cross-Eyed Moose — you might miss a tiny old building painted white with piñatas hanging over the door. The hand-lettered sign that announces the recently opened establishment reads “El Rodeo Restaurant,” although with due respect to mother-daughter proprietors, the place really qualifies more as a taquería — if I understand that word to essentially mean “taco and tamale stand.” There are just four tables squeezed into the tiny space, with a kitchen area barely big enough to change your mind in. The women cook and serve and bus the tables, but their tiny café is really better-equipped for take-out; it requires only about three of the large families who tend to socialize here to create a wait. (Note to kid-phobic patrons: On any given day, there are some rowdy little ones around, chattering, stumbling, staring.)

I don’t mean to suggest El Rodeo lacks its own (cramped) ambience. Plant your elbows on the oilcloth table coverings and take in the wind chimes, the gilt-framed mirrors adorned with Aztec suns, and the big, loud tv set on the kitchen counter (which, on the afternoon a friend and I arrived, was playing a Spanish-language Western). El Rodeo specializes in no-frills breakfast, lunch, and early dinner entrées. The proprietors would like to start serving later-evening meals as well, but I don’t see how these folks could accommodate a curious crowd spilling over from evening Stockyard events. And judging by our dining experience, this joint could easily attract a following outside its already dedicated Latino patrons.

My guest and I were disappointed that the preliminary basket of chips was store-bought, but we were both blown away by the accompanying salsa. Brown rather than red, and not at all chunky, it was a chilled, pureed sauce, with black pepper flecks, that tasted of limes, jalapeños, cilantro, and ... and something. It was simply divine, especially with the other item on the warm-up — tortillas. These were almost more like Indian bread than the curling parchment most Tex-Mex chains serve as tortillas. I wondered about the elusive salsa flavor: Could it be the unsweetened chocolate sometimes added to mole? The chef, who said she’d “read many books” to perfect the recipe, declared it a secret verboten to us. Press deadlines — and the Weekly’s budget — did not permit a lab test, but suffice to say we requested bowl after bowl ... and bought some to take home.

The photocopied menu declared guiso de res to be “the most popular stew in Mexico.” It was served on an oval plate with rice — light and very unlike the cloying, spicy pudding clumps you get elsewhere — and refried beans. Green peppers were the dominant flavor in this guiso, with tomatoes and onions circling the beef skirt steak in seasoned brown broth. Now, skirt steak may have a rep as the polyester of meat cuts, but, thanks to the way El Rodeo marinates the beef, the pieces are tender and peppery to their cores. This is what made the platter of two gorditas so terrific. They were advertised as corn tortillas stuffed with beef, but, in truth, the “corn tortilla” part was actually two light wedges of corn bread (or corn cake, if you want to argue the point).

Then there’s the menudo. Yep, El Rodeo serves it. Yep, their version seemed freshly made and non-greasy. Nope, I’m not a menudo eater, before or during my visit. For someone who can nosh raw tuna and curried chicken liver without blinking, I could frankly only flirt around this steaming bowl of tripe, pig fat, beef bone, and, curiously enough, honeycombs (as in the bees, not the cereal). Our server supplied me with a plate of cold lime and lemon wedges to squeeze in, as well as chopped onions and tomatoes. The reddish chile-based broth was tasty, a sort of tart but gamey beef stew. But my innards just wouldn’t let me near the cow and pig innards simmering in the soup. Walked right up to the edge and blanched.

To overpraise El Rodeo would be to obscure its simplicity and its irony — this is a bare-bones operation that aims to serve passionately original takes on a few Mexican staples. It’s a home-cooking hot spot for people to “drop by,” not conduct business or declare their love across the table — unless hot, spicy pork entrails get your mojo flowing.

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