Carla Meyer

Dining review: El Palmar no place for snobs

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

I don't want to say all foodies are dingbats because that would be unfair. And all dingbats are not foodies.

But foodies who purport to seek out and enjoy only "authentic" cooking – specifically, authentic ethnic cuisine – have a shtick that gets old faster than an episode of "Storage Wars."

This occurred to me one chilly, windswept weekday evening recently when we arrived at El Palmar, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Carmichael open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. This was our third visit and we knew what to expect: lots of food at excellent prices, and lots of people filling the joint with lively banter.

To no one's surprise, there was a line all the way to the door – a line full of folks who apparently enjoy sour cream with their burritos.

The horror!

According to certain members of the foodie Politburo, who apparently imagine they are peasants dining 150 years ago, sour cream is a no-no.

And the adoring Carmichael crowds like their burritos big and fully loaded, which calls for some kind of foodie reprimand because someone, somewhere determined that is not authentic, either.

This unschooled throng, according to some, must also crave the free chips and spicy salsa served here, as I did. I asked for seconds, which made me doubly wrong.

All this posturing and policing is no longer interesting or necessary when it comes to the Mexican-American restaurant.

You do realize this is a Sacramento suburb called Carmichael, not the Mexican province Michoacán?

Nearby is a Whole Foods Market, where a family of four can easily drop $500 for a week's worth of grub. That used to be imaginable only if your address was Biltmore Estate or Buckingham Palace.

At El Palmar, folks are hungry and they have certain needs. They want friendly, efficient service and they don't want to hear smirks when they mispronounce "huevos rancheros." They want substantial portions and lively flavors. Then they want to be on their way.

What they don't need is a rundown of why the food they just wolfed down is wrong.

At the risk of sounding like Marilyn Hagerty, the white-haired, Olive-Garden-loving, 85-year-old newspaper-scribe-turned-viral-Internet-sensation from North Dakota, there is nothing wrong with Mexican food cooked with a suburban American twist.

Could we use more diversity with our Mexican restaurants in the Sacramento area? Certainly. But we could say that about Thai food, Chinese food, Italian food and, well, American food.

El Palmar is a classic, mainstream Mexican- American restaurant, right down to the neon decorating accents and the sombreros nailed to the walls. The décor is hokey, half-hearted and clichéd, just the way we like it. The menu is all but indistinguishable from thousands of other thriving restaurants like it throughout California. It's that way because the concept, with the nips and tucks for the American palate, is a proven winner.

Foodies? You probably won't find them here. See "cream, sour" above.

Frankly, there is no "wow" factor at El Palmar, but there isn't supposed to be. El Palmar is not a great restaurant, but it doesn't try to be.

At a place like this, there are three questions to ask. Does it taste good? Is it worth what you paid? Do they treat you right?

My answers: most of the time, always, absolutely.

On the jam-packed evening in question, we bypassed the crowd by asking to sit at the counter. It's not an open kitchen, so our entertainment amounted to listening to the blender used to make their above-average margaritas. The blender should probably be relocated to the kitchen.

The cooking is largely well executed, though we spotted a few inconsistencies with the shrimp, or camarones. If it's cooked too long, shrimp can be chewy, even rubbery. When it's perfect, the bite is clean and tender. The camarones à la diabla – shrimp cooked in a fiery sauce, was a disappointment because the sauce was actually sweeter than it was hot, and the ample pieces of shrimp were all on the tough side. For $11.95, which is the highest price on the entire menu, that's a significant misstep.

Next time, however, we did much better with the shrimp. The camarones Veracruz – shrimp with peppers, onions and tomatoes – was an example of a simple dish with appealing flavors, good texture and sizzle. Dishes like this come with a serving of corn or flour tortillas. As expected, these were neither handmade nor exceptional in flavor, just like nearly every other Mexican restaurant around.

The arroz con pollo – chicken and rice – is a longtime favorite dish of mine. It's simple, hearty and healthy, whether it has a Mexican, South American or Caribbean twist. Mexican-American? Why not? El Palmar's version is one of the best I've had at a comparable restaurant – the seasoning was lively and balanced, with savory notes and a hint of sweetness.

Burritos are another thing where the authenticity question is just silly. Take the super burrito, a.k.a. grande burrito, deluxe burrito or stupid-big burrito. Is it an impostor? Of course. Is it wrong? Of course not, especially at a suburban strip mall.

I like my super burritos loaded with all kinds of Mexican-like ingredients, and I especially like it when they include guacamole and sour cream, because, hey, we'll never get out of this recession by undereating.

The chicken burrito was good. So was the shredded beef. The tamales were decent, especially when covered in sauce. The guacamole was too one-dimensional. The nachos supreme were not as supreme – or as tasty – as they could be. The fajitas with chicken had that textbook sizzle as the plates hit the table, just the way we remember fajitas at nearly every decent Mexican restaurant we have visited in the past two decades.

I couldn't get excited about the desserts, mostly because there was nothing distinctive about the fried ice cream on a flaky pastry shell or the flan.

What El Palmar does best is live up to its promise. It gives the right answers to the three questions we needed to ask.