Photos by Melissa Welliver

Ernesto’s Mexican Food

1901 16th Street – Sacramento

Ernesto’s Mexican Food is celebrating its 20th year on the corner of 16th and S streets, which is a mighty feat in local dining and deserving of our deepest apologies. Last Thursday, three staff members took their maiden steps into the cantina. To our delight, the overdue visit resulted in fulfillment and a desirable balance of spice and spirits in our breath.

The stylish yellow tint and stucco exterior place Ernesto’s at the higher end of Mexican dining, but the menu prices are reasonable. The interior is neither heavy-handed nor kitschy in providing an authentic Mexican experience. Ernesto’s has class, but no room for pomp. Seating is balanced between the communal and the intimate. On a busy night, it must feel like a jumping and cramped party. Where does the mariachi band even fit? But, on a Thursday afternoon it’s casual and discrete.

My only sustenance the day of our lunch date with Ernesto’s was three cups of coffee, a multi-vitamin and a glass of water. I was in a state of considerable hunger, feeling the pangs in the mid-region, and the scents lingering inside Ernesto’s did not help my cause. The complimentary chips arrived fast with an extra mild salsa and bean dip. Despite a predilection to avoid beans, I decided to be a professional and sample it. It led to four more sample scoops to be certain I truly enjoyed beans for the first time in ages.

The salsa is mild to a point of just being finely diced wet vegetables. The chefs keep a hotter salsa in the back of the house for themselves, but the servers will gladly bring some upon request–if only we knew this during the meal. It’s not unusual for the kitchen to have its personal stash, often too dangerous for the dining patron. Chefs and cooks pride themselves on their special concoctions unfit for the weak of stomach. Ernesto’s willingness to share their stash is a favorable quirk to the menu–it plays to our eagerness to be “on the inside” of the business or the regular-syndrome that compels people to order off the menu and give the server the secret wink that they are “in the know.”

The Cadillac Margarita is billed as being “voted ‘The Perfect Margarita in Midtown’ by SN&R.” Compelled to judge the claim further, I ordered one only to have the pucker of lime mixed with the potency of Agave Blanco tequila send me kicking the booth boards in approval. The rocks pour is served in a tall glass with a salted rim and lime slice to temper the tequila’s zing. Ernesto’s doesn’t bother with extravagant presentation or bait you into multiple orders with a slim tequila pour drowned in lime juice. It’s got a kick and no-nonsense pour that warrants the vote of confidence.

The drink situation properly handled, we ordered a large bowl of fresh guacamole, which was a constant at the tables there before us. If it is not made fresh, why bother? That’s my firm stance on guacamole, and I admire Ernesto’s like-mindedness. It was a delicate blend of chunky and whipped, with enough jalapenos to give the zest a kick.

We ordered from the lunch menu and had I not involuntarily fasted, I would have left with a heavy to-go box. Ernesto’s proved its legitimacy and legacy with a lunch portion worthy of my hunger, but not unconquerable in girth. The signature combinations section is priced fairly at a flat rate of $9.99 and a hefty plate of three samples of Mexican dishes will arrive with the option of chicken, steak or carnitas. The steak combination is a taco, enchilada and quesadilla with a side of traditional Mexican rice, beans and salad garnish. There was little uncertainty in the server as to whether or not I was finished when he removed a plate that only left the salad garnish. I briefly considered spreading the leftover mole sauce from the enchilada on the garnish and finishing it off, but thought better of it.

One might surmise that promptly following this exercise in gluttony that I retired home and took a siesta on my chaise-lounge sofa. The glory of good Mexican is substituting quality ingredients with hefty filler. The enchilada was the only item drowned in sauce and cheese, but the tacos and rice serving were light. I did not feel engorged or sluggish. I was filled properly with plenty of tortilla absorbing the tequila in my gut.

Ernesto’s 20th Anniversary Party is Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 with live music, cake cutting and food and drink specials.

    Blake Gillespie

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    Bourbon enthusiast. Infrequent shaver.