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April 2017

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El Rinconcito’s little corner of good food

After Senor Rosa's upped sticks and moved into the old Leatherby's Family Creamery at the south end of the Downtown Mall (call it the Promenade all you like, it's still the old Downtown Mall) that funny little cinder block building set back from Eureka Way didn't sit vacant for long. Salvador Hernandez stepped up and opened El Rinconcito a few months ago, joining other locally-owned restaurants like Brick's and The Best Little Sandwich Shop as havens in a sea of chain fast food spots.

It looks pretty much the same - park next to the gas station and squeeze past some nasty-looking cactus to get inside, or share parking with the auto repair. The cinder blocks are painted blue, and the old green canopy is gone. Inside it's still fairly spartan. But Hernandez serves his food on actual ceramic plates with metal cutlery instead of wrapped in foil or in squeaky disposable boxes with plastic forks, which is a big improvement in Femme de Joie's eyes. The menu is typed on both sides of a single piece of paper and tucked inside plastic sleeve protectors. There are all the usual suspects plus a few less-common items. A few daily specials are written on a board above the cash register. Service is helpful and friendly.

Salsa - not the usual pico de gallo, but instead a smooth puree of chilis and tomatoes - and chips come with your meal.

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Tortilla soup, $5.95

Many Mexican restaurants offer tortilla soup; it's usually pleasant if undistinguished. This one was simply the best version Femme de Joie has ever had the pleasure to eat. A savory rich cilantro-spotted tomatoey chicken broth was topped with crisp tortilla ribbons and diced avocado. Underneath was what appeared to be fine noodles; on closer inspection the noodles turned out to be filament-fine shreds of poached chicken. That kind of attention to detail made M. de Joie realize the kitchen was run by serious cooks.

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Carnitas burrito, $9.95

Delicious niblets of carnitas pork were layered with house-made refried beans and rice. Instead of the usual practice of stuffing a flour tortilla with as much filler as possible, minimal was the word: when the ingredients are all beautifully seasoned and cooked, you don't need globs of cheese, salsa, tomatoes, onions, and so forth. Just a little crema drizzled decoratively over was the only concession to the usual restaurant burrito.

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Taco salad, $7.95

To the best of Femme de Joie's knowledge, taco salad is an unknown beast in Mexico; it appears to be a American hybrid creation of the 1960s when comida Mexicana began to creep into the American kitchen. Most versions involve a sizable mountain of iceberg lettuce centered inside a pre-made oversized fried taco shell and decorated with fried ground beef mixed with a packet of taco seasoning, some diced tomatoes, shredded cheese and sour cream - in other words, a lot of cheap lettuce with a modicum of toppings. El Rinconcito's taco salad started with a homemade shell and a modest amount of lettuce, went on with lightly seasoned morsels of steak, fresh tomatoes and olives, and finished with a generous scoop of house-made guacamole. That crisp shell was as different from pre-made shells as a homegrown tomato is from one of those miserable pinkish winter tomatoes. Instead of a scoop of made-ahead filling, the steak bits were cooked to order. Again, it's the best ingredients combined skillfully, sans fatty, creamy sauces, that distinguish this dish.

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Sope with chicken, $3.50

A sope is essentially a small, thick tortilla made of masa fried and served with some sort of savory topping, also known as huaraches, gorditas, and other names. House-prepared and freshly cooked revealed the delicate corn taste of the masa. Lightly grilled chicken cubes were sprinkled with cotija cheese and a thick wash of crema . There was a bit of oil oozing from the sope itself, so this was not as successful an execution as some of their other dishes.

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Al pastor taco and lengue taco, $2.50 each

"Regular" size tacos are made with house-made tortillas, and they are worth it. Puffy and tender, thicker than commercial tortillas, they're the perfect wrapping for the simple fillings of diced al pastor (spicy pork) and lengue (tongue) accented with cilantro, diced onion, and a fresh green salsa.

El Rinconcito is probably our new favorite Mexican restaurant. Everything is made in-house (with the exception of the chips, which appear to be commercial). As Femme de Joie stood waiting to pay, she observed a tiny woman behind the counter serenely turning fresh pasilla peppers on a gas flame, blackening and blistering them to make chile rellanos. That is the kind of time-consuming detail that makes this food so good. But let it be known: if you are expecting the servings to be the giant platefuls found at most Mexican restaurants, you will be sorely disappointed. Portions are modest. But this is carefully prepared food to be savored, not gobbled. Take your time and really taste it.

El Rinconcito, 2030 Eureka Way (behind the smoke shop and auto repair), Redding, CA 96001. 530-262-8646. Open daily, 11:00 AM - 8:00 PM. Parking lot. Cards, cash, no checks. Vegetarian and vegan options.

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