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story.lead_photo.caption The Choriqueso at El Mezcal Mexican Bar & Grill, cheese dip with chorizo sausage and fresh jalapenos served on a skillet, is similar to queso fundido. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

Many folks — including us — were champing at the bit, awaiting the frequently delayed opening of El Mezcal Mexican Bar & Grill in the former Afterthought restaurant and bar spaces on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood.

The owners, part of the family that also operates a handful of Cantina Cinco de Mayo restaurants in the area, pledged when they announced it that it would have high-quality service, an upscale Mexican menu and a cocktail program that focused heavily on the agave-based Mexican liquor that is the restaurant's namesake.

El Mezcal Mexican Bar & Grill

Address: 2721 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Cuisine: Mexican

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar with cocktail program

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Wheelchair access: Yes

Take-out: Yes

(501) 747-1414

One out of three ain't bad, but it's by itself not a great reason to dine at El Mezcal.

The service is indeed of high quality, with some bizarre twists for which we can probably blame the kitchen. (See below.)

As for the mezcal, we're pretty sure they have some at the bar, but we scanned carefully several times through the extensive cocktail list and found plenty of margaritas, Texas margaritas, specialty margaritas and high-end tequilas, but no mezcal.

The menu is slightly upscale compared to area Mexican restaurants, but not significantly; the most "upscale" element of the dining experience is the prices, a notch above what you'll usually pay for this level of cuisine, though we got portions large enough to maybe justify them.

El Mezcal has two dining rooms, divided almost exactly where the previous restaurants and bar were split. Part of a brick wall remains as a definer. A long bar occupies most of the back wall. Seating is at tables with sturdy chairs and booths branded with the restaurant name. It's a nice, pleasant space in which to dine until it starts to fill up, at which point it gets pretty noisy. Four TVs screen Spanish-language sports channels. There must have been music but we don't recall really hearing it; at least it isn't mariachi, which for some is a big plus.

If you like your Mexican food spicy, you likely won't enjoy El Mezcal. Most of what we tried was subtly flavored but definitely not fiery. And unlike most area Mexican restaurants, there's no hot sauce of any variety on the tables. Nor did we see the wait staff bring any out for other customers.

We fared best with our appetizers. El Mezcal serves guacamole two ways — plain guac ($6.50), ready-made from the kitchen, which hit the table almost right after we ordered, and Guacamole Mexicano ($8.99), made to order and served in a stone bowl. The primary ingredient and flavor in both was avocados; in fact, in both cases, the avocados were only partially mashed, leaving large chunks that had to be dealt with using a fork because the fresh, salt-free chips weren't thick enough to do the job. The Guacamole Mexicano at least had some discernible onions, but we didn't taste any of the other ingredients you'll usually encounter in guacamole — for example, no garlic and no citrus.

The big winner in our 21/2 El Mezcal meals was the Choriqueso ($7.59), similar to queso fundido — white cheese dip served on a skillet topped with a goodly portion of chorizo and fresh jalapenos. We didn't get to enjoy it hot out of the kitchen (see below), but we liked it better than anything else we tried.

We also enjoyed the Chilaquilles ($9.99), which we ordered to go: fried tortilla chips with a choice of chicken or steak (ours came with large chunks of grilled chicken), all soaked in a "special" red sauce that was about the only thing we tried that had any kick to it, topped with a fried egg.

Gallery: El Mezcal

Four Flautas ($11.29) flanked the sides of the plate, surrounding portions of pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. The shells were crisp and the chicken inside surprisingly moist and mildly but definitely flavorful. We could have used more sour cream.

Intrepid Companion, who often orders shrimp cocktail at Mexican restaurants, was disappointed in El Mezcal's ($14.89). There were plenty of fresh, firm shrimp — with the tails already removed, thank goodness — served in a goblet of soupy, subtly flavored "cocktail juice," but IC took the leftovers home to add some heat.

El Mezcal's Molcajete Special ($15.69) is similar to fajitas — chicken, steak or a combination thereof (shrimp is an option for $17.49), sauteed with onions, tomatoes and choice of peppers, topped with a cactus leaf — served in a stone bowl instead of a skillet. Meh. It came with sides of flavorless rice and soupy refried beans, despite the menu's promise of "whole beans."

The staff was friendly and helpful, but on two eat-in visits and one order to-go, we had major timing problems, including two long waits for entrees — 25 minutes for our to-go chilaquilles, for no apparent reason other than the place had just opened and the kitchen staff must have been still finding its feet. On our second visit, our guacamole came out of the kitchen almost immediately, but we waited almost 15 minutes for the flautas.

And the Mexican guac and choriqueso came out reasonably quickly, but our entrees followed barely two minutes later — if that — and well before we'd even been able to dip a chip into the choriqueso — and loading our tiny two-top table with so much food we had a hard time negotiating the meal.

Weekend on 07/11/2019

Print Headline: El Mezcal still finding its footing

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