“What would someone need to be celebrating to spring for a $100 shot of tequila?” I wondered as I browsed the comically large menu at El Tequileño, a restaurant and sports bar at 2790 South Havana Street in Aurora. Having counted seven TVs in my visual vicinity, all playing some kind of sports game, I could see how this bar might be popular for game-day events. Perhaps that’s the shot you order after your team wins the big championship. Either way, if $100 tequila shots aren’t in your budget, there are 149 other varieties of tequilas to choose from at El Tequileño, starting at just $4. When I asked the server if big sporting events attracted large crowds to the eatery, she laughed and said, “Oh, yeah! It gets kind of crazy in here sometimes.” This makes sense, since you can clearly see what’s on the big-screen TVs no matter where you’re seated in the restaurant or bar.
When you sit down at El Tequileño, you get salsa and a bowl of cabbage pico de gallo, which has a sourish tinge of vinegar that complements the savory tomato salsa nicely. Since I’m a dip whore, I always get excited when the server places more than just a bowl of salsa and chips in front of me at a Mexican restaurant. And incidentally, the salsa and cabbage pico was the only food I tried that didn’t need added seasoning.
It’s hard to find health-conscious fare at a Mexican restaurant, and equally challenging at a sports bar, so it was refreshing to see that skinny tacos ($15.75) were offered on the menu. A choice of meat (carne asada, pollo asado or fish) is served up on romaine lettuce cups instead of tortillas and is sided with cholesterol-free whole beans. I’ll guiltily admit, though, that I subbed them out for regular refried beans — I simply must have refritos when I’m out for Mexican food.
The asada I chose for my skinny tacos was divided up among three romaine lettuce leaves; the tender bite-sized steak chunks tasted like they had been marinating for hours before being cooked. The beans were soft and velvety, although everything needed a heavy-handed sprinkle of salt. I also would’ve preferred a dollop of guacamole with the main course instead of the three large, grilled onions whose only purpose seemed to be taking up space on the platter. The grilled jalapeño was a nice touch, adding heat and a little variety to the unadorned meat-and-lettuce tacos.
Like the steak in the skinny tacos, the pork carnitas ($14.75) were juicy and tender, with just a little bit of background tang, and the spicy red sauce served alongside the entree played very well with the shredded hunks of pork. The pollo in the pollo Morelia ($14.95) followed suit in the "succulent meats that need salting" motif that my two separate visits to El Tequileño had going. The cheesy gravy in the Morelia that’s slathered on top of chicken, peppers and red and white onions was a tad gluey, and the thickly sliced onion massively outnumbered the chicken pieces.
You can try all of this, plus close to eighty other entrees on the menu, for about $5 to $10 less if you dine during lunch hours between 10:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily; one is chosen each day to be featured in the deeply discounted $5.99 lunch special. The typical guacamole ($4.75), cheese dip ($4.95) and chicken taquitos ($9.75) are served as appetizer selections, but baby octopus and mushrooms served with a side of butter ($10.99) or the baby shrimp nachos ($10.75) could prove an exciting change of pace if you’re up for something unusual. Come in for happy hour between 2 and 5 p.m. and slug down two of the house margaritas or two domestic beers for the price of one, Monday through Friday.
The service at El Tequileño was mostly attentive and welcoming, and the atmosphere was bright and colorful. Reservations are not necessary unless you want a guaranteed booth seat, in which case the restaurant recommends calling ahead. Casual and surprisingly tasty Mexican food is served up with no pretensions at this cantina, $100 tequila or not. Whether you’re a health nut, sports fan, bargain hunter, dip whore or tequila aficionado, you can leave happy at El Tequileño — just be sure to keep the salt shaker close by.
El Tequileño is open Sunday through Thursday from 10:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10:45 a.m to 11 p.m. It is located at 2790 South Havana St. in Aurora. Call ahead for reservations at 720-748-1260 and check the restaurant's website for more information.
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