Finding a restaurant where my picky 13 year old son and I can both enjoy a meal can be challenging. I don't eat meat or dairy products and he basically doesn't eat anything besides chicken, cheese, and fries. Maybe an occasional burger. One thing we can both agree on, though, is Mexican food, and we recently added a new restaurant to our rotation. El Patio Mexican Restaurant is conveniently located just down the street from the Stephen's Family YMCA, so it is a great place for us to unwind and catch a great, reasonably priced meal after a day of running around.
I didn't know what to expect when we walked into the clean, open dining room at El Patio. A polite metal bell jingled as we entered, announcing our presence, and we were instantly greated with smiles from the two staff members. We were told to choose whichever table we wanted, so we settled into a comfy a booth by the window. The server brought us menus and took our drink order, then quickly returned with two large glass mugs of ice water with lemon, a basket of warm tortilla chips, and some tasty homemade salsa. There's something really satisfying about cold beverages served in thick glass mugs; they just taste better, I think.
The universe aligned for my son. El Patio serves a dish called pollo en papas ($7), which is a bowl of French fries topped with thinly sliced strips of grilled chicken and a generous portion of creamy white cheese sauce. His decision was easy. I teetered between the fish tacos ($8.50) and the veggie fajitas ($9.50). I asked the server to please check with the kitchen and make sure the rice and beans were vegetarian. She gladly asked the cooks and returned to tell me how each dish was prepared.
I decided to give the veggie fajitas a try, so I could compare them to the ones I have ordered many times at other local establishments. I asked the server for corn tortillas, to which she replied, "would you like to try our handmade tortillas?" Um...YEAH! I absolutely love fresh, handmade corn tortillas. I often find the thin, pre-made version served at most restaurants to be flimsy, flavorless, and unsatisfying. I was not expecting El Patio to make their own tortillas; most family-style Mexican restaurants do not. These delacacies are usually found in smaller taquería style restaurants, like Maize, on campus.
This is when it occured to me that El Patio is very unique. They manage to blend the convenience and speed of a small taquería with the variety and atmosphere of a large family restaurant. Although they don't have the large seating capacity of some of the other local Mexican restaurants, they still have ample seating for plenty of guests, and they have a small bar with a television and stools for guests to relax and enjoy a beer or margarita. They also offer some outdoor seating out front, with plans to add more tables along their side entrance. They have a separate menu insert with a la carte pricing for tacos ($2.75), tortas ($8.00), gorditas ($3.75), and sopes ($3.75). They hand make their tortillas, sopes, and gorditas fresh to order, and their bolillo rolls for their tortas are made fresh locally. I cannot stress what a difference this makes. To me, the contrast between hand made tortillas and pre-made, store bought ones, is like the difference between a fresh French baguette from a local bakery, and Wonder bread from the supermarket. No matter how good the fillings are, a taco or torta is just not the same unless it's served on a fresh, hand made tortilla or bolillo roll.
When our food arrived, I was once again reminded that El Patio is special. The veggie fajitas came to our table sizzling and pouring out steam, just as they should be. The vibrant vegetables were perfectly cooked, light and fresh, without a ton of oil. The handmade tortillas were absolutely amazing, chewy and tender, with great flavor contrast from small char marks made by the flat top grill. I piled rice, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, bell peppers, yellow squash, tomatoes, and mushrooms onto a tortilla and dug in. Wow. What an exceptional vegetarian meal! The tortillas held all of the perfectly prepared ingredients without tearing or becoming soggy. I instinctively looked to the napkin caddy on our table to grab some bottled hot sauce. As I did, the server came to the table to ask how our meal was, and she saw me peer over at the hot sauce. She asked me if I wanted some of their homemade hot sauce. Um...YEAH! This place just kept getting better and better. She called to the kitchen for some salsa picosa, and brought me a dish filled with roasted tomatillo salsa, which was rich, smoky, and plenty hot. With the addition of this homemade salsa to the already amazing tortillas and toppings, my fajitas were truly over the top, absolutely the best veggie fajitas I have ever had.
My son was equally impressed with his unique meal. It was like a Mexican-style bowl of cheese fries, topped with what he referred to as the best grilled chicken he ever had. The secret, our server later told us, is the cooks insist on hand slicing their meat as thinly as possible, so it is always tender. Talking to our server was very interesting. I learned from her that the restaurant is run almost entirely by her family members; her mother, older brother, and father run the kitchen, while she staffs the front of the house along with her sister and younger brother. She also handles their design work, as she is studying graphic design in college. She then told me how her mom's recipes are used for their outstanding tortillas, as well as their aguas frescas. What? Aguas frescas? I didn't see those on the menu. I saw they had horchata, which I stay away from since it is made with condensed milk, but I didn't see that they served these delicious, non-alcoholic beverages. She told me they rotate their selection of flavors based on what is fresh and seasonal. By this point in the meal, we were already getting too full to order anyhting else, but I absolutely love the sweet, fresh taste of these tradtional Mexican fruit juice-based drinks, so I made a conscious decision to return, soon, to try one out.
After our meal, we were asked if we saved room for flan or fried ice cream. I don't eat dairy products, but I was curious, so I asked what was her favorite. She said without hesitation that the loved the flan. She told me that's why it's listed on the menu, which she designed herself, as "The Flan," because it is the best. Judging by the care with which everything else was made at El Patio, I'm pretty sure she wasn't exagerating. I was sold by the high quality, fresh ingredients, but the friendly, accomodating service convinced me to make sure to return for another meal as soon as possible, which my son and I did the following weekend.
On our second trip we took her advice and ordered a couple aguas frescas, watermelon and guava. They came served in the familiar large glass mugs and were a real bargain at only $2.25 each. One sip and my son and I just smiled. He said, "Wow. It's like biting into a perfect piece of watermelon." My guava juice fresca was fantastic, naturally sweet with just a hint of added sugar. The drinks were super refreshing, and a wonderful compliment to our meal. I tried the fish tacos while my son, a creature of habit, went for the pollo en papas again, since he like it so well the first time. The food came very quickly and was, once again, perfectly prepared. The fish tacos were a pleasant departure from the usual deep fried version often served in restaurants. The chunks of grilled tilapia were tender and fresh tasting. The sauteed onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers accentuated the natural fish flavor without covering it up. Add some of the spicy salsa picosa and the fresh hand made corn tortillas and this dish was a true winner. The fluffy rice and creamy refried beans were perfect compliments to the meal, as well. Our second meal was as good or better than our first, and the service was, once again, top notch.
El Patio is a little bit hidden in the Robeson Crossing, which has seen a number of businesses, mostly restaurants, come and go over the past few years. With it's clean, welcoming ambience, great customer service, and menu filled with traditional Mexican favorites and some unique surprises, I think El Patio is here to stay. If you're in the neighborhood, definitely stop in, or make the short trip to southwest Champaign, and let the Ramirez family treat you to wonderful meal, great drinks, and excellent service.
El Patio Mexican Restaurant is located at 2506 Village Green Place, Champaign, and open Sunday throughThursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
All photos by Jim Singer.