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Come for the Food, Stay for the Atmosphere: Round Up a Good Time at El Rodeo

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The first time I visited El Rodeo it was on a whim. Running errands on Business 97 and completely dejected having failed to accomplish anything on my list, I was tired, hungry and desperate for shelter from strip mall world. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted El Rodeo. Though a pretty standard-looking Mexican restaurant from the outside, I sensed a certain cheerfulness about it that drew me in. My instincts couldn't have been better. Immediately upon entering the sunny terra cotta tiled foyer and walking up to the host station, I was greeted by the friendliest smile I had seen all day, and it was a genuine one at that. In fact, every staff member I came in contact with from the hostess to the bartenders and servers in their tan satin guayabera shirts replicated that smile, and my day of frustrations quickly melted away.

Owned by relatives and former partners of the El Cap clan, El Rodeo's menu rings familiar, but the attitude is all its own. There seems to be little turnover among the staff and on all my visits, at least half the customers were regulars, both sure indicators of good management. Adding to the festive atmosphere is the décor. Great for family meals and groups, the main dining room is bright and comfortable with a wood-beamed ceiling, tiled archways lined with plants leading out to the skylit indoor patio and large stone fire pit at the center.

I have to admit, though, that I've never actually eaten in that room. How could I when a few paces away is the delectably kitschy La Cascada Lounge? Walk through the mosaic doorway and enter a world of 80s patterned carpets and upholstery, bull horns and beer signs, Mexican knickknacks and wall hangings and the pi├Ęce de résistance, a full floor-to-ceiling rock wall and fountain in the corner. I always choose to sit right by the fountain at the bar. Table height and pretty small, the bar area has an intimate feel, a nice view of the tequila selection and a window into the action in the kitchen. Equipped with wide-screens for leisurely football Sundays with margaritas and nachos and ample seating for gatherings, the lounge can be more crowded and lively than the main dining room, particularly off hours.

A meal at El Rodeo starts with warm chips and salsa, as well as a crisp pickled cabbage slaw with chopped tomatoes, red onion, jalapeños and cilantro. The extensive menu includes the classics - burritos, enchiladas, tostadas and the like - as well as a wide range of specialty dishes, but all are served dinner-style with rice and beans. The food isn't breaking any molds, particularly the unexceptional rice and beans, but generally expect solid traditional Mexican fare. Dinner entrees are a bit more expensive than usual at around $12-$18, but good values can be found at lunch when prices are in the $8-$9 range. The carne asada, which I've tried as both an entrée and in burrito form, is my go-to protein at El Rodeo, though the ground beef and chorizo also make good fillings. I also very much enjoyed the tortilla soup. The savory clear broth with chicken, jack cheese and tortilla strips came with a separate plate of chopped red onions, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and lime wedges to combine according to taste. I threw the whole plate in. The contrast of the cool, fresh veggies with the warm soup and melted cheese made a lovely mouthful.

Frankly, I'm always so enchanted by El Rodeo's staff and atmosphere that even if the kitchen served up lesser fare, I'd probably still be a fan. But a respectable if not spectacular menu on top of all of El Rodeo's charms makes for a winning overall experience.

El Rodeo Mexican Restaurant

785 SE 3rd St., 617-5952

11 a.m. - close daily

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