02 March 2012

Creative Mexican food in Fort Collins

A friend long ago recommended El Monte Grill to me, and after driving past the strip mall it calls home several times, I finally went in.  They're owned by the Rio Grande chain here in Northern Colorado, and while I don't fool myself into thinking the food is authentic at Rio, I do appreciate their high-quality ingredients and skill in preparing tasty food.  So why not?

El Monte is actually so good that I have thought about it occasionally since visiting.  The atmosphere is a little more hip/ less family-oriented, and the food is just a little racier than Rio's Chile Rellenos (El Monte has three different kinds!) or Enchiladas (El Monte has one with spaghetti squash and arugula!).  I joke, but I really did find the slightly offbeat combinations enticing.  One can only eat so much cheese and beans with white rice...

El Monte focuses on Oaxacan cuisine, and the entire menu sounds amazing.  So, after much consternation, we landed on two kinds of "street tacos", fish and chicken.  The fish was delicious, and remarkable grilly-tasting. The chicken was roasted in adobo sauce and came with generous portions of cilantro and crema, which was my main reason for ordering them--they did not disappoint.  Three tacos sounded stingy to me, but I was stuffed when I was done, and the rice and beans that came on the side was actually delicious.  Usually rice and beans are a throw-away, but these were seasoned so well, I could have happily eaten them alone.  That kind of attention to detail is evidenced throughout El Monte's offerings.

We made it there in time for the end of happy hour and enjoyed some lovely $5 Cubanos, which is basically a mojito made with gin instead of rum.  El Monte tried to make a thing out of their guacamoles, offering an "exotic" guac with mango, strawberry, and chives, a traditional, and a choose-your-own with a little sushi-style menu.  I had the exotic and it was interesting for a few bites, but wasn't really complex enough to keep me going.  And oddly, there is no garlic unless you ask for it.  I will admit that I am almost always bored by restaurant guacs, though, so at least El Monte was trying.

Finally, the complimentary salsas, a red and a green, were delicious, moderately spicy, and generously served.

El Monte doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's a little cocoon of foodiness in southern Fort Collins.  The atmosphere is decidedly grown-up without being snobby (our waiter practically killed himself trying to keep us happy), and the menu has just enough subtle surprises, backed by solid ingredient choices and great skill in the kitchen, to make Mexican food exciting again.  I have a long wish-list of meals I'd like to get in future trips to El Monte.