FAMILY: When I’ve been out to What’s Cooking, the small Mexican restaurant on Commerce Road with a whole bunch of plants and a sign that resembles a cabin, I haven’t been super impressed. The food was fine, but the tortas were nothing very exciting, and I felt you could get better Mexican food elsewhere. That didn’t give me super high hopes for El Zarco (650 W. Broad St., 706-850-2010), brought to you by the same people as What’s Cooking, but in a much closer location. It turns out, it’s both sweet and worth your time, especially if you live or work toward the middle of town.
The space that was previously 180°F Cafe, serving Taiwanese street food, has been reimagined, with sarapes on the tables and walls to provide color and twinkly lights around the windows. El Zarco still feels a bit like a temporary operation, or one that’s built for take-out business, partially due to the plastic cutlery, and partially due to the way your complimentary salsa for dine-in comes in a little disposable container with a lid, ice cold from the fridge. The menu is a simple, two-sided thing with a single photograph, and a lot of the offerings don’t seem all that adventurous (e.g., a salad with fried chicken tenders over mixed greens, with or without buffalo sauce). None of that is very promising, but there are lovely things to be found, especially on the weekend.
Mexican-style tacos come on house-made corn tortillas that are a bit thicker than the norm and therefore feature only one tortilla per taco rather than two. Dressed with the usual cilantro, chopped raw onion and lime, they can be ordered with chicken, chorizo, asada or al pastor, and although everything is pretty good, the latter—as it often is—is the best. Just get three of those, and enjoy the pineapple. There are nice enchiladas, with rice and beans on the side, that are pleasingly simple and flavorful. The chips are homemade and, again, thicker than usual, which I don’t love, but you might.
I still don’t think the torta is all that. The Cubana version comes with steak, chicken, ham and pineapple, plus tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeño and mayo, but it never quite coalesces into the magical, sour-spicy-meaty mouthful of melded ingredients that the best ones do. Maybe it’s not a good way to judge the restaurant, or maybe I’m just always chasing the perfect version.
Flip the menu over, and you’ll see a section of entrees that includes several mole sauces. Should you arrive on a weekend to find a dish of chorizo in a green mole, order it. Tender, acidic and satisfying, it is a great combination of meat and sauce. Also available on the weekends are homemade horchata, hibiscus and tamarindo for the drinking, and you shouldn’t neglect to check the board that lists daily desserts, which might include some pretty tasty cream-filled churros.
The restaurant is undeniably a family-run organization, and the small size gives everything a personal touch. El Zarco also has hot wings, Jarritos, dips, fajitas, sopes, burritos, grilled shrimp and nachos. It does not serve alcohol, and is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday and for dinner every day. Unlike its parent organization, which now just does catering, it takes credit cards.
ROAD TRIP: If you’re in Madison on a Saturday, you might want to hit up Madison Produce Company, which also serves as a deli. From the outside, it looks like the kind of cutesy shop that is the town’s brand, but if you step inside, you’ll see that it actually has both beer and wine to consume with your meal. Order at the counter, and you can sit inside or outside, either choice involving patio furniture. You can also wander around and look at many, many different types of honeys, jams, pickles and suchlike, or you can peruse some fresh vegetables, beef from Verner Farms, down the road in Rutledge, bread from Luna and more, both refrigerated and not.
Sandwiches come on Luna bread and are made with Boar’s Head meats and cheeses. The Reuben is a thinner, more pressed version of the standard, but it works. Better yet is the Burnin’ Sherman, a signature sandwich with grilled jalapeño pimento cheese, spicy pepper jelly and good bacon, all on sourdough. Hot dogs are substantial. Everything is well priced. Ingredients tend to be high quality. You can add a variety of chips, salads, and beverages that include Mexican Coke and RC Cola, as well as standard soft drinks and dessert from King of Pops. (Or, walk down the street to Scoops, the best candy store in at least a 30-mile radius, which also has ice cream.)
Madison Produce Company is open from 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
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